Category Archives: English Channel

I am an English Channel junkie. It is still and always will be considered the standard for open water marathon swimming.

July 24th, 1883

Niagara maelstrom
Photo used with permission by reddit user zxo

This is a maelstrom.

Indeed the very definition of such, as it’s the whirlpool at the base of Niagara Falls. It’s where Captain Matthew Webb tragically died on this day, July 24th, 1883. It was taken by a photographer zxo  and it grabbed my attention immediately I saw it and they gave me permission to use it here.

After his historic, (in a real sense), first ever successful solo of the English Channel on August 24th, 1875, Captain Webb was unable to parlay his global fame into anything more substantial, despite investments of his prize and an overseas lecture tour.

He’d become known as a swimmer, so he swam more.

Exhibition races in Boston and Manhattan, a “world championship race” against his arch-rival to be first across the Channel, Irish-American US Champion Paul Boynton. Boynton had worn and championed the use of an inflatable rubber suit, and had he been first across, marathon swimming would likely be quite different today. (Boynton did an exhibition swim in Dublin down the Liffey river wearing the suit which was watched by 30,000 people). Webb won the championship race also, but a stunt at the Boston Horticultural Show where he floated for 128 hour in a tank didn’t suffice to provide for his young wife and two young children.

His family knew nothing about the Niagara swim. In desperation Webb took up the challenge on a promise of $12,000, a considerable sum in those days. Thousands of spectators were brought by train to watch.

Wearing the same swimming costume as that in which he had swum the Channel, he stepped into the huge current. He started strongly but very quickly the current took him. He threw his arms in the air and was pulled under, where he hit his head on the rocks and died, his body being recovered four days later. Prior to the swim he had expressed his hope that “If I die they will do something for my wife“.

A friend of his, Robert Watson, the journalist who had accompanied him in the boat on his Channel swim, also traveled with him to Niagara. Watson reported: “As we stood face to face I compared the fine handsome sailor I had first met with the broken-spirited and terribly altered appearance of the man who now courted death in the whirlpool rapids. His object was not suicide but money and imperishable fame“.

Any English Channel swimmer cannot but think of Captain Webb, both his feats and his tragedy. We celebrate most commonly the date of his Channel crossing.

But he was a man, more than just a swimmer. It is often said by Channel swimmers that the English Channel changes us. It is rarely mentioned that those changes are not always positive. We cannot but think that out of such achievement came such sadness. And yet also motivation for so many. But we can at least say he achieved his second goal of imperishable fame.

It is not known whether anyone did anything for his wife or if his fame or achievement sustained them in any way. Captain Webb has no living descendants.

Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 6 – Le Français Volant

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4. Part 5.

With the sickness, the changes in feeds, how the crew felt, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Sylvain was still swimming strongly. That despite everything, he was very much the star and focus of our private show, and our entire concern. The earlier change of goggles had finally resolved the ongoing leakages. Every internal downturn or recovery he felt was (mostly) invisible to us, only a hint of how he felt on each particular feed visible to us on his mien, and in his eyes, to try to interpret. Over the late afternoon and early evening period, he undulated his way across the Separation Zone and on toward the north-east shipping lane.

Even his legs display a grace
Even his legs display a grace

Let me tell you about Sylvain’s stroke. Maybe you have swum ‘fly, like most swimmers do. Maybe like me, you sometimes do it for fun, sometimes to make a point, sometimes because it’s on the training set, sometimes because few things say fuck you to the world quite as comprehensively as swimming butterfly. Maybe you even love ‘fly. But how much do you swim? How long before your technique abrades away? How long before you start one-arm fly drill? How long before you feel like you are trying to pull yourself out, out of the water with rubber shoulders, paper biceps, spongy triceps?

For most of us ‘fly is an equation which quickly equalises to zero. Two hundred metres in Dover harbour with Sylle for me, playing hide and seek as we swam out of phase, swimming side by side, but his head submerged when mine was up, every time, knowing he was there, and not seeing him, that was enough before I reverted to front crawl.

Sylle’s ‘fly is elegant and looks easy. He flows through the water. There isn’t the big powerhouse flipper-splash of legs and feet like a 200 meter ‘fly meet swimmer. Instead there is a glide, a slipping and sliding, as Sylle works with the water. He reminds you of nothing so much as an otter, as his feet and legs, on every beat, (28 beats per minute), like the highest rated divers, penetrate the water with barely a splash. In some way that what he did. He dived his way across the Channel. He doesn’t look like he is being pushed by those legs but neither does he look like he is being pulled by his arms. Instead, he demonstrates some other ineffable skill. For swimmers it is beautiful and amazing to watch swimmer, so much so that as effortless as it seems, that you come to think it is effortless, that it is easy. But, of course, it isn’t.

Last daylight shot 7th hour 4pm IMG_8826.resized

Feed changed. Lisa and I regained the feed schedule from Mike over a couple of hours, with every single feed necessitating a discussion of the content: Malto, sliced bread or a roll, cheese, ham or chicken slices, water, a taste of fruit.

By 6.00 p.m. light levels were dropping with oncoming dusk. The sea state was a bit more unsettled. No glorious sunset with the heavy cloudbase. Official Observer’s Log indicated wave height remained, as it had from the start, zero. Feet or metres it didn’t matter, but the sea state was marked “slight” which sounds good but is actually the centre of the scale on Mike Ball’s newly designed Observer’s sheets, which start at smooth, through calm then slight and moderate to rough.

At 18:35 we entered the north-east shipping lane, the ships now passing up the Channel, and around this time the tide slackened briefly. More importantly Sylvain indicated at his feed, now happening on the half and full hour rather than the quarter-to and -past, that he was feeling much better. It had been a long two hours from when he first got sick.

At 7 p.m. the light had almost failed, and before the half-hour feed we could see that the lights that Sylvain had started the swim with were not sufficient for good safety visibility. I had my own Adventure Lights with me, but they had come back from a recent Channel swim not fully functional so were unsuitable. We gave Sylle a light from Mike’s spares at the 7:30 feed for him to place on his helmet strap, but either a wave or catching it with his biceps ripped it off and 15 minutes later we gave him another and a chemical lightstick, the second working better. By that time the light was entirely gone, the usual long twilight attenuated by the clouds, and we were well into Channel night, with a long way still to go.

Last feed I IMG_8879.resized

Conditions on the boat were fine, the evening was mild, if very dark. Conditions in the water still would have been good … if you were swimming front crawl. But butterfly changes so many parameters of a swim. The wave height on Mike Ball’s Observer’s report was zero, all day. But there was that slight ruffled surface. Such a surface, instead of being sliced by a front crawl swimmer’s arms and head, presents a series of physical barriers, into which the butterfly swimmer, Sylvain, will inevitably crash. Repeatedly, hundreds then thousands of times. Each impact is small and transitory but cumulatively exhausting. No wonder his stroke rate dropped, apart from the sickness, he couldn’t fully engage his long stroke, the wavelets and tiredness shortening his stroke somewhat.

Sylvain’s preferred position was about eight to metres out, and with Gallivant using one starboard side main spotlight, it felt like he was really in two worlds, even more so than a usual Channel swim, if there is any such thing. Darkness on three sides of him, in front, behind and on his far side. He was just like a butterfly specimen pinned to a display board, but instead he was pinned to the night and the dark and the water.

Night Flying
The Greater Night Flying Butterfly

And now with night’s arrival and heavy cloud obscuring the moon, almost no light fell on the water’s surface. The swim became a war between Sylvain and the surface. Every movement came at him out of pitch back, each wavelet arriving with no notice. For hours he battled as we cycled feeds for him, malto, some electrolyte, water.  At 10 p.m. Sylle refused his malto and took only water and mouthwash and told us he wasn’t swimming back. As Lisa, Zoe and I sat together on the forward deck

Because there’s another part of the story I’ve neglected to now. Sylle had three potential goals: The first was to be the first man to butterfly the channel. The second was to do so in a record time. The weather and tide change, (not the sickness) has scuppered the record attempt. The third prospective goal was a potential two-way, returning to English by front crawl. He had done the training but hadn’t even told his family. He told them the night before the swim, just in case they managed to be at the point where he landed on France, because if they were and they hugged him, that would disqualify him.

We took Sylle’s assertion, not as the joke it might be on another swim, and we set it aside, unconcerned. It was irrelevant to us. We wanted to get him across one-way and for the long period of the afternoon and night that single goal swung backward and forward, in and out of view and possibility.

Feed to feed. That’s all that counts in the Channel. That’s the swimmer’s world, every new horizon thirty minutes away. The past doesn’t exist, the future and France is away over that horizon. Only now.

At 10.30 p.m. we changed the feed to porridge, once again concerned, as we had been intermittently for hours, that Sylle was still sick or really uncomfortable, even beyond what we could sometimes see in his eyes or twist of mouth at feeds, the roller-coaster of feeling good and feeling bad continuing through the night.

Alone in the dark
Alone in the dark

I asked Sylle to come in another few metres toward the boat while swimming and reminded him of his pull-through, seeing as he’d been struggling with the constant chop for hours had shortened his stroke. Concentrating on it would give him something else to focus on, but during that 10.30 feed he said “I don’t think I’m going to make it“.

Few Channel swims are easy, few cross without daemons presenting themselves.

The eastern most ships in the lane passed between us and France, their presence marked only by occlusion of the lights on land, not even their silhouettes visible. Another hour slid past. At the 10.00 p.m. feed Sylvain was holding his lower back so at the 11.30 p.m. feed we gave him paracetamol. Sylle had never used painkillers in training until shortly before his swim, but Lisa and I had insisted he take them as a test, just in case. They worked and his back loosened and we had finally passed into French Inshore Waters by the midnight feed and were only 1 mile from ZC2, passing well inside it, the buoy that gives experienced Channel crew and swimmers a good indication of their position, but only in daylight, as ZC2 wasn’t visible to Sylle.

90 minutes left feed  IMG_8872.resized.rotatedRaiding our supplies, we found Zoe had some Pain Au Chocolat, and we had brioche and we used these for the next feeds, each bringing a big smile to Sylle’s face, such that he uttered “ooh la la!” in reference to some stereotypical joking back in Varne.

The clouds finally lightened around 12.30 a.m. and while they didn’t fully part, the moon was finally able to illumine the water’s surface beyond the tiny world of the spotlight and the water calmed as the inshore waters of La Manche welcomed their globe-trotting son home.

By 01:30 we were directly outside the lights of Wissant, and I recalled Sylle and I in the same place on Gábor’s swim, and I wished Gábor could have been there with us. For those last two hours, the stress and strain lightened and we knew, finally, that after hours of uncertainty, Sylle would make it.

We were turning into Cap Petit Blanc, the vertical headland north-east of Wissant village, where in 1941 Herman Goring had stood and watched as the second biggest wave of airplane to attack Britain in the second world war had streamed overhead. It was the third Sunday of September, Commonwealth Battle of Britain Day and the invasion was one lone Frenchman, reclaiming La Manche for La Belle France, en papillion.

Not far feed IMG_8881.resized

The last metres wound down. I prepared to swim in. Mike and I discussed the potential turn-around for the return. Sylvain was perfectly placed up a Cap Blanc to catch the tide back into the Channel. But he would have to decide.

My own lights adequate for the short distance, Mike Ball did the correct thing by reminding me of the rules for a support swimmer, especially for a turnaround. Stay behind the swimmer, don’t touch him in any way. If he needed to be greased he would have to do it himself, and I carried a tub of grease in my swimmers. I got the word to enter the water about 2.15 a.m.

Mike Oram had a bright spotlight shining on the cliffs for us to follow in, as Gallivant needed to stay a few hundred metres back to avoid rocks, the tide having risen again. I swam to the far side of Sylvain. I could tell he was still swimming strongly, not the sometimes very slow pace at the end of a Channel swim. Positioned on his right, I lifted my head and heard shouting from the boat, Lisa and Zoe exhorting me to finish with Sylle the only appropriate way, and so I switched into butterfly myself.

Every Channel or marathon swim that I’ve crewed has left some deep personal memory for me. They include swimming in Cap Gris Nez with Alan Clack the previous year, while I cried in my goggles thinking of Páraic, the upper reaches of the early morning Blackwater with Owen O’Keeffe, sunlight streaming over Bray Head for Rob Bohane, Sylvain and Gábor and I hugging on Wissant beach and others.

My favourite moments of Sylvain’s swim will be these:

The searchlight was strong, a white ball exploding onto us. The world was only fuligin and supernova, the water was galactic black, solar white, particles trapped in the glare like insects frozen in an explosion, grainy film strip in my eyes; Sylvain to the left and ahead of me; the usual intense and isolate night swimming sounds; breath and movement, breath and movement, breath and movement. Sylvain, a perfect silhouette moving through the water, imprinted on my retina like a perfect moving negative. 

As we reached the cliff, my only concern was his safety. But he reached out, a rock presented itself perfectly in the water, and he glided into it and touched with a two-handed butterfly finish. He stood and stumbled through the boulders to the cliff two metres away, while I stayed back still submerged. He climbed above the waterline, a spiderman now as well as a butterflyman. And I hooted my head off. And I hooted and the crew hooted and Gallivant’s triumphant klaxon split the empty night for our friend who had just crossed the English Channel, La Manche, in a time of 16 hours and 42 minutes, becoming to first man to ever so do.

Aah, to finish there would be sweet, but incomplete.

We discussed the turn and the return. Sylle did not want to attempt the swim back, after the brutal one-way crossing he had endured. He had accomplished his primary task. But my task was to push him. And so he agreed that he would stretch out while we swam back to Gallivant, and he would have time to stretch his muscles into a more forgiving front crawl. I told him he was perfectly lined up for the tide. I didn’t let him off. Back to the boat through the by-now warm French coastal waters. I climbed out of the boat while Sylvain stayed in the water, and we talked with him and gave him time to decide. For fifteen interminable minutes, for the second time in as many weeks, Lisa and I berated a Channel swimmer to do something they did not want to do. But we pushed them so that if and when they made their own decision, as the swimmer must, they would be sure afterwards it was the right one. Eventually Sylvain put Lisa and I thankfully put us out of our misery of torturing our friend. He ended the horrible task of trying our best to convince him to torture himself further, when he reached out and grabbed the ladder, and we pulled our heroic friend aboard.

It was an enormous and stunning swim, and as has been repeated by Lisa, Zoe and Mike Ball, it was a privilege to witness. Even daring to dream of a butterfly crossing, let alone more, is beyond the capacity of most of us. The timing was personally redemptory for me in reminding of the courage of ordinary Channel swimmers. Sylvain and the CS&PF’s commitment to clear rules were also a lesson to all. Sylvain has not got even one Yellow Card fro a stroke infraction on the entire swim.  At a time when some of us were being falsely accused of not celebrating one swimmer, which only meant we didn’t buy the Diana Nyad lies, Sylle helped rescue us and showed us all true historic achievement, like others have this year.

It was not easy. But it was great.

Sylle & Greta & sponsor IMG_8967.resized
Sylvain & Greta

Proud IMG_8933.resizedNext day in Varne, we took some more photographs, aware that Sylvain’s place in swimming history was cemented forever. I said to him that The Flying Frenchman was a good nickname, and he should embrace it. Because it would last him a lifetime.

With other worthy nominees, Sylvain has justifiably been nominated for the Male Swimming Performance of the Year. (Only forum members can vote).

Vivé La France, and thanks to Sylvain, l’homme papillon, for allowing me to be part of such a momentous swim.

The Flying Frenchman IMG_8963 gmp.resized

I’ll leave you with Sylvain’s English Channel video. It’s absolutely fantastically well put together (and funny).

Don’t forget to pop over to his blog or follow him on Twitter. He’s a great guy and a good friend, as well as an astonishing swimmer.

Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 5

Part 1Part 2Part 3. Part 4.

I wasn’t sure when I started this how long this series would be. Previous long series have run to five posts. This will take six. Given his achievement, I think it’s fair to say that Sylvain deserves a six-part series!

As I wrote in the previous post, almost immediately after Sylvain got sick Mike Oram started feeding him, with no discussion with crew. Between getting sick and Mike’s feeding the time lost was about five minutes.

Twenty minutes later was the next scheduled feed, at 16:45, and adhering to the plan wasn’t as important at this time, but Mike again fed Sylvain, this time with a watery porridge, water, and mouthwash to remove the vomit taste. Five minutes after this feed, Sylvain got sick again but reported feeling better afterwards. Less than ten minutes later again, just before 5 p.m. Mike fed Sylvain this time with a cheese spread on bread. We as crew were superfluous at this stage, and since this was Sylvain’s swim and his success the only important thing, it wasn’t about how we felt, so we bit our tongues. From Mike’s point of view about many things in the Channel with his 800 crossings, crew are mostly baggage, which will be not be a surprise to anyone who has read or heard his many  “swimmers are only my third and slowest engine” comments. The 5 p.m. feed was lengthy, taking Sylle over two and a half minutes.

Sylle in the sixth hour shortly before getting sick
Sylle in the sixth hour shortly before getting sick

So why did Sylvain get sick? As I’ve also said previously, this happens usually because swimmers take in more carbs than they can process as they mostly are in liquid form and happens many people.

Channel swimming burns about 800 calories per hour. The human body, regardless of size, can take in about 280 calories per hour. Earlier during that morning “discussion“, Mike had ridiculed me for not having a “T-form“, or for not knowing the term. Not needing Mike’s approval I’d asked what he meant, and I had mentioned I’d read all his emails to the Channel Chat group over the years, a repository of which articles Niek Kloots hosts on the Netherlands Channel Challenge site. They are worth reading if you are interested in Channel swimming, and being here, you may be interested, as Mike knows more about the Channel than most people, Fred Mardle and Reg Brickell being the only other pilots with similar experience.

The T-form, is essentially a calorific input/output balance sheet (my explanation). Mike explained to me all about calories and liquids and blood and liver etc, not really accepting that I, or indeed any swimmer, might have some or any knowledge of these matters. Mike explained how he had brought the idea from his sales training in the US, in between his extensive sailing and piloting etc and plotting swim routes from California to the North Channel. Apparently.

Mike’s T-form is the written form of the mental calculation that experienced swimmers do subconsciously or even occasionally consciously. Written down or not, there is the same net result: calories-in do not equal calories-out. Eventually a swimmer goes from having a positive glycogen amount in the liver and muscles to a deficit. Part of training is to get adapted to the transition from glycogen burning to fat burning, also known as ketosis. Writing it down adds nothing except work, unless you are so poorly organised or inexperienced as a crew that your swimmer is feeding too little or too much.

Lisa and Zoe and I continued to discuss with each other and to talk to both Mikes. Mike Oram’s primary assertion was “this year’s Maxim is bad“. He said that this Channel season had seen a significant increase in the number of swimmers getting sick.

Maxim is the most used carbohydrate by Channel swimmers and that used by Freda Streeter to feed swimmers on their Dover Harbour training swims, so it became the default. I’ve used it, Lisa and Zoe used it and many more. Maxim is a 99% maltodextrin carbohydrate and both Evan and I’ve written previously about different aspects of feeding. Evan’s posts on maltodextrin product comparisons and osmolality are particularly useful in this discussion if you want to understand some of the varying factors.

In 2012, Maxim became increasingly more difficult to source until it disappeared. Freda and the beach crew and many others, including myself for MIMS2012, and Lisa, sourced anther product, called Vyomax Maxi. Sylle was using a different product as Maxi wasn’t available in Sweden, but his was still just a generic 99% maltodextrin. I’ve also used Sponsor Competition Sponsor Long Energy, Hammer Perpetuum, Go Energy and others.

During the immediate hour subsequent to Sylle getting sick, Mike Ball looked at Sylle’s feed stuff and then asked why we hadn’t informed him that Sylle wasn’t using Maxim. Lisa and I tried to explain that 99% maltodextrin was 99% maltodextrin, regardless of label, we even still call it Maxim. I don’t think Mike Ball, whom I greatly like and respect, really believed us!

During this time Mike Oram spoke much about noted American Channel Swimmer, friend of his and one of the Channel greats, Marcy MacDonald, who only recently had completed another two-way swim, her third, with Mike, her regular pilot. Mike said she had been sick most of the way, and he’d reverted to the older English Channel feeds of porridge, tea and bread to keep her going.

I am of the opinion, as I’ve written about other swimming subjects, that simple explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones: Did Diana Nyad catch a magic unknown current and after over 30 hours swimming somehow start swimming faster than world-record pace? Or did she make it all up for money and fame, following a lifetime pattern of attention-seeking? Is all this year’s maltodextrin, regardless of  vendor, bad and causing illness, or are more swimmers overfeeding?

It is certainly the case that something had happened that I haven’t yet told you. When mixing the feeds the night before the swim, Sylle had mixed the feeds to quadruple strength, so that when diluted with our warm water supply that was used each feed, the concentration was reduced to double. There was … discussion … of this, shall we say. Lest you think this was a crazy ad-hoc last-minute decision by Sylvain, it wasn’t. Sylvain was already a Channel swimmer. He is a very experienced swimmer, a very experienced open water swimmer, and he was following the feeding regime he always used, including his first Channel swim and which he had used for his long training swims.

The last feed before getting sick IMG_8825.resized

During our discussion I mentioned how last year during his English Channel solo, Alan Clack had wanted a double strength feed, and how without telling him, I’d changed it to single strength. In that case I was completely in charge of looking after Alan, and with more experience than Alan, felt sufficiently certain to so do. But I never told Alan, because I knew he needed to believe that I was doing exactly what he wanted.

It’s also the case that I’ve seen a document circulating on email which outlines double-concentrate mixing of feeds. But this document states that this is intended to be mixed to achieve single concentration.

Papillion Francais
Papillion Francais

Without actual details of the swimmers affected I can’t categorically say, but in Sylvain’s case, we know for a fact that he was using double-concentrate and that was the cause of his illness, rather than some manufacturing defect.

I use Sylvain to explore further this whole problem and the challenges of gauging individual feed requirements, and situations that can arise, even for an experienced swimmer and crew, and it’s not meant to reflect poorly on Sylvain.

We all make decisions and the Channel finds us all out one way or another.

Keeping the communications open and being receptive to Mike over the next couple of hours, we continued to watch Sylle closely. The tension for us his friends and the concern for him, was high. Over the course of a couple of hours, between four p.m. and 6 p.m. Sylle’s stroke rate dropped from 28, to 26, to 24. Not a cause for panic but needing to be watched.

This series finishes in the next and final Part.

Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 4

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

I closed last part with a question: Did Lisa, Zoe or I really consider Sylvain’s thoughts as he passed into the south-west shipping zone?

Not really. There was no-one on Gallivant that day who wasn’t intimately familiar with Channel swimming, with four Channel Soloists aboard, one as Observer, the most experienced pilot, the best co-pilot, and the most experienced Observer.

No-one on the boat wasn’t aware that swimmers must swim in their heads, must call on mental as well as physical training during a Channel swim. Four of us knew intimately that every Channel swimmer must find their own way across, swimming across the water and swimming through their own internal landscape. Four hours into a Channel swim is still early. 

The water surface had finally smoothed to a state that would only last a couple of hours but nature and Sylle weren’t entirely in union.

Oncoming tanker IMG_8789.resized
Oncoming tanker Bow Saga, passed about 150 metres aft

Fifth hour in the Channel and Into the South-west shipping lane, the lane on the England side. The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, with a thousand vessels a day of all sizes from rowing boats to VLCCs (very large cargo carriers) travelling through and it therefore requires command and control and identification of all vessels operating through the strait. Vessels, most travelling to and from the major European ports, including Hamburg, Calais, Rotterdam or Copenhagen all follow “rules of the road”, the outbound traffic on the English side, the inbound traffic on the French side.

Bow saga, bow wave IMG_8795.resized
Bow Saga, bow wave

The Bow Saga, a gas carrier, passed closely behind us and we watched the aptly named box wave travel toward us, but it wasn’t large and didn’t swamp Sylle too heavily, the foreshortening caused by the camera lens making Kent’s White Cliffs seem but a short distance behind us.

In the fifth hour the tide changed from ebb to flood with little slack between, from dropping tide to rising tide, from swimming south-east to north-east and the very slight breeze shifting southerly and Sylle requested that we dilute his next feed.

Sylle & ship 5th hour IMG_8810.resized

Thirty minute feed intervals passed in the afternoon, as we took turns. From the fourth hour there were feeds where Lisa and I noticed that Sylvain sometimes looked less than happy or glad to be swimming. We gave Sylle dilute mouthwash with every fourth feed, passed him fruit with his feed a couple of times and during the diluted 2:45 p.m. feed where he had the requested a change of goggles the next feed, which we gave him. But he hadn’t verbally indicated any significant problem.

Zoe feeding Sylle 5 hours IMG_8770.resized rotated
Zoe feeding Sylle

The feed at 16:15 pm, late afternoon by the third week of September, was the tenth and half-way into the eight hour. Weather and water conditions hadn’t changed in any significant way. Sylle had looked however distinctly uncomfortable but said nothing and I’m not inclined to interrogating a swimmers in the Channel, adding time as it does. As happens on feeds, the swimmer can drift off behind the boat, and so happened on that feed. Five minutes later, Sylle still returning to his position the starboard side he stopped. and got sick.

Channel swimmers often get sick. Too many undigested carbohydrates, the liver can’t cope, a quick ejection, and everything is better afterwards. But this was different. Sylvain immediately got sick again. I was the only one who saw the initial vomit, and I called Lisa and told her, and we informed Mike.

With this began a very long and very difficult period, mostly for Sylvain, but also for us. Lisa and I were ready to take immediate remedial steps and yet, though Sylvain had asked us as his crew, there arose a tension between what we wanted to do, and what Mike as pilot did.

From this point, for many hours, I did not have time nor even thought to take more photographs. Visual documentation is nearly always an extra to a swim during the event, its existence only really becoming more important as time passes and the swim and the crispness of the experience slide into the past.

Lisa and I planned initially to change Sylvain’s next feed to tea, to allow his digestion time to settle. Subsequent that we would have had further available actions. None of these are a secret, they are what are done by experienced crew.

Before we had the chance to do anything, Mike Oram started his own feeds to Sylvain, first giving him a cheese and white bread sandwich within five minutes of Sylvain getting sick.

Though at this point we have only covered half of the swim in four parts, and the most momentous and difficult part of the swim lay ahead, the narration will quicken from here.

On to Part 5.

Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 3

Part 1Part 2.

Fiirst stroke IMG_8701.resized

That Sunday morning of late September was overcast and dull as Sylvain undulated away from Shakespeare beach almost parallel to the kilometre-long Admiralty Pier. There was a light Force Two breeze ruffling the water surface, which was a slightly cooler than hoped for 15.1 degrees Celsius.

It is always important, vital even, to grasp the environmental parameters both predicted and in operation, to really understand any Channel swim. Like mountaineers and adventurers, marathon swimmer’s comrades-in-spirit,  we are aware that we operate in an arena and world greater than we are, greater than we can be, and that we at best negotiate our way through. A weather prediction is the battle plan and the old adage about battle plans is that they rarely survive first contact with the enemy. (If this was a badly-made movie, we’d be arriving at the voice-over narration for the boring exposition):

Sylle’s wait had moved him from a neap to a spring tide, and not the edge of a spring but a big 6.8 metre tide bringing with it a bigger tidal current. His weather window meant he and the other swimmers departing that morning were doing so on a low tide. The preferable tide for leaving Dover is a neap high tide. Swimmers leaving Dover take advantage of the flood to get pushed north-east, the first leg of the more usual “backwards-S” chart. Leaving on low tide doesn’t negate the tidal current assistance or increase the distance, but changes the heading, swimming south-east instead. The pilot must still plan the approach to the Cap and consider the changes in wind direction.

The weather forecast was for light breezes for the morning, slackening a bit in the afternoon and early evening. The swim would start cloudy but skies might clear to patchy in the afternoon. Not very warm, but not chilly either, most important for Sylle as any direct sunlight is a boon for a swimmer, reducing heat loss and sunlight can lift a swimmer, and give mental energy. Bathing both literally and metaphorically in vivid mid-day sunlight, even as the wind rose, is one of my favourite Channel memories.

The night’s forecast was more opaque. Possibly mixed clouds and clear skies. Clear skies mean lower temperatures but increase visibility for a swimmer, a trade-off that cannot be chosen and can only be evaluated as it is underway. Also important is the fact that a late in  September swim means shorter cooler daylight hours. A morning swim start instead of night start means that a swimmer will be swimming into night, a veil that obscures the latter toughest part of a swim, whereas a night swim holds a promise of dawn and hours of daylight for a swimmer.

Fish legs
Fish legs

The other boats were almost out before Sylle, a couple of hundred metres ahead, all to our starboard side, the same as Sylvain. (Oh, that reminds me, I spent the day, when we had time, which wasn’t much, trying to teach Lisa Cummins (PHD!) about port and starboard. I am not sure if I succeeded). Only CSA pilot Reg Brickell’s Viking Princess was astern of us, about a kilometre back.

Sylle’s information to Mike had included the fact that his stroke rate was 24 to 28. Open water swimmers and long-term readers here will know I often speak of the importance of stroke rate for open water thermogenesis, (heat-production). Front crawl Channel swimmers vary in rate from typically low sixties to high eighties, depending on size, stroke type and training most importantly. Sylvain’s stroke rate looks low in comparison, but of course it was a different stroke, the whole body movement of butterfly.

Admiralty pier IMG_8741.resized
Passing the end of the Admiralty pier and the harbour entrance

The ruffled water off Shakespeare beach presented no obstacle to his stroke as we moved away from the beach, the well-wishes staying until we ceased to notice them. After about 20 minutes we moved outside the sheltering mass of the Admiralty Pier and into open water, the fleet just ahead and starboard of us. As we passed the pier terminus, we could see the tide line just ahead, the interface of the current and the water making for a choppy transition. Within ten minutes the fleet spread out, caught sooner by the tide than us, they pulled away. However ten minutes later, at 10:15 we passed into the transition and by 10.25, the choppy transition water at the tide’s edge required Sylvain to stop a couple of times to reseal his goggles, but we were into the ebbing tide, following the fleet, catching the ocean conveyor south-east and out, out into the Channel.

The fleet in front of us
The fleet in front of us

Sylvain’s first feed was at 10.45, after an hour, taking a 500 ml bottle of maltodextrin (carbs) and apple juice. The feed schedule called for hourly feeds for the first three hours, then feeds ever thirty minutes, the carbs mixed for taste with either apple juice or blackcurrent cordial, alternating, for four cycles, then a feed of electrolytes, with dilute mouth wash every two hours.

The morning continued grey and overcast with the breeze shifting through Force Two and during the early swim we moved all the supplies under the poop deck canvas cover. Cloudy and dry, the air was nonetheless laden with salt and moisture, such that we all stayed fairly covered and found impossible, for the entire day, to have dry hands, the marine moisture clinging to skin.

Ninety minutes into the swim Sylle had stopped to adjusted his googles a few times more. Unplanned stops are always a cause for concern. Is there something subconscious in the swimmer’s mind causing the stops or is there a minor problem that could grow with time into a major problem? By 12.30 p.m. we had eventually realised that every time he adjusted he was catching the lip of his swim cap under his gasket-type Aquasphere goggles and not knowing this, which then led to a gradual leak and after we shouted this at him, he finally got the problem sorted before it led to too much brine in the goggles, which will lead to swollen shut eyes.

About an hour after the swim started Mike joined us on the poop deck, (yes, I will keep saying poop deck!). There was a … long conversation soliloquy from Mike about many different subjects related to Channel swimming; the problems with the organisations, the problems with the committees, the problems with swimmers, the problems with crews, the problems with coaches, the problems with other pilots, the problems with … etc. I was the primary audience, Lisa and Zoe taking the opportunity of a scheduled feed to escape to the bow. Seeing my chance in a lull for air, I asked Mike something I’ve wondered, having read and listened to him many times. I asked him if he liked Channel swimming … The answer, was less than categorical.

Second feed
Second feed  – note dog leash!
Viking Princess steaming for the other end of Shakespeare Beach
Viking Princess steaming for the other end of Shakespeare Beach

By the third hourly feed, the breeze has dropped again ever so slightly, to low force Two, but the sky remained impenetrable. Sylle’s stroke rate was steady averaging 28 strokes per minute. Thirty minutes later at 13:15, three hours and thirty minute elapsed swim time, we swapped to feeds every half hour. It always sounds like one only has to spend two minutes mixing a feed, and a minute feeding, and you will have the rest of the time to lounge around, but once you as crew are on a 30 minute feed cycle, it seems like you have no time for anything else. You might rotate the mixing, feeding and watching duties, or one person might like to do it for a while, as I did for a few hours, and the time is full of discussion of the previous feed, how he looked, how it went in, what the next feed was, the mundanities filling the available time to the brim and suddenly someone has to rush to get the next feed ready.

The breeze dropped to Force One, a whisper, though the surface didn’t glass-off (become still), and the Varne Lightship was visible away to the north-east, in the Shipping Lane which we would enter in the next hour. Not long after the 2 p.m. feed we were passed on the port side by a rowing team heading to Dover. Cross-Channel rowers are no longer allowed into French waters since early in 2013, after having been stopped by the French navy, despite the early teams having french approval, they now row out from Dover to the half-way point, then turn and row back. For Channel swimmers this kind of arbitrary action by the French coastal authorities is always a concern.

It was approaching 2.15 p.m. Sylvain had been swimming butterfly for over four and half hours and had just swum through a large oil slick without pause. We as crew, even though we knew what we going out to see and do, were still awestruck. The weather continued moderate. Did we stop to ask ourselves what was going on in Sylle’s head as we entered the south-west shipping lane?

Channel rowing IMG_8758.resizedOn to Part 4.

Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 2

Part 1.

We arose in Varne Ridge early on Sunday morning, but much better than the more usual middle of the night for a typical Channel swim. Sylvain’s favourite breakfast is brioche, and he didn’t start the morning with a typical Channel swimmer’s huge breakfast, instead restraining himself and just having brioche and coffee, while instead Lisa and I stuffed ourselves in preparation for a day at sea. Great Greta wasn’t coming on the boat but would instead would be in charge of land communication to family and friends.

Lisa, Greta, Sylvain, Donal
Lisa, Greta, Sylvain, & some guy before leaving Varne Ridge

We somehow made everything fit into the car and made the short trip down to Dover harbour. The car park was busy with relay teams, as we were now into a spring tide of almost seven metres when relay teams swim. There was one other soloist, and interested locals including our Sandycove visitor friend and English and North Channel local Howard (Staykold) Keech and English Channel one-way record holder Jackie Cobell. We picked up our other backup crew member, English Channel swimmer Zoe Sadler, another crew member Neil Morton not being able to make it. Also around were Sandycove Distance Camp alumni Bethany Bosch, owner of the world’s most famous swimming dog, due to Solo in 2014, Bethany, that is, not the dog. To the best of my knowledge, Guri the dog has not yet published her future swimming plans. Also David Dammerman, who very generously gave me some replacements for the God-Bottle, and who successfully Soloed the following week with Bethany as crew.

Busy day in Dover
Busy day in Dover

Sylle had a very quick first word with Mike Oram and James Willi on the pontoon. There was no hesitation about going on the next tide, we were going on this tide, the word was given.

Mike Oram & James Willi IMG_8633.resized
Mike Oram (left) & James Willi (right)

Gallivant, Anastasia, Sea Satin, Viking Princess, Suva, and Sea Leopard all jostled to find room on the loading pontoon below the Marina Office, while Optimist tied up out alongside Suva. Relayers on their first Channel excursion milled about, all excited. More experienced, we were nonetheless excited, but more focused. We had a quick hello with our good friend Pilot Paul Foreman, briefly chatted with Lance Oram, said hello to others we knew on the pontoon including; the CS&PF’s committee member and annual Channel Dinner organising supremo, Michelle Topatalo, Haydn Welch out on his first observing job, with Barrie Wakeham the Shingle Stomper and John Thorpe, and Zoe’s friend Kate all around as Observers.

Mike Ball give a quick overview of the rules IMG_8641.resized
Mike Ball gives a quick overview of the rules

Crew, swimmers, observers, and well-wishers on the low tide rocking pontoon, a frenzy of chat and loading and excitement. Observers for Sylvain’s swim were impressive and as usual for Channel swimmers, we only knew who they were when we met them on the pontoon. Tanya Harding, the CS&PF’s most experienced Observer, Observing since the 1980’s and Mike Ball, himself also a Channel swimmer, and Chief of the CS&PF Observer Corps, and who gave Sylvain a précis of the rules before the briefing.

Channel boats lined up on the departure pontoon
Callivant & Channel boats lined up on the departure pontoon

CS&PF Senior Pilot Mike Oram would have James Willi as co-pilot, as he has for about six years, and there’s not a steadier hand on the rudder in the fleet than James’.

The rules discussed weren’t the usual CS&PF solo rules, but the Additional Rules for a stroke specific attempt. As Sylvain was swimming a specific stroke, he knew that he would have extra rules governing this stroke and that these would integrate with Channel rules. The Observers would also be judging his stroke and adherence to specific stroke rules as well as the usual Solo rules, (not touching the boat or anything else, textile suit, single cap and goggles, etc).

Rules IMG_8634.rotated
Sylvain on the morning of the swim with the rules

That photograph of Sylvain holding the rules on the right is more important than usual. You can click for this link for a closeup, so you can read the rules (listed further on) yourself that the CS&PF Committee agreed would govern the swim and of course all the image files with EXIF data intact are available but when you don’t have a history of deception, when your swim if ratified by Independent Observers, it’s obvious that one doesn’t have to worry about these matters.

It’s also important to note that those rules were only made available to Sylvain on the morning of the swim. He had no prior notice of or input into setting rules. I wrote so much about Diana Nyad and marathon swimming and rules after returning from Sylle’s swim. I explained over and over, as did others in the marathonswimmers forum, that actual real honest marathon swimmers abide by published rules verified by independent Observers.

Sylvain’s and the CS&PF’s commitment to transparency was absolute and exemplifies what I was trying to convey. Sylvain’s swim is important, not just for his swim, but also for the timely demonstration of this ethos.

Zoe Sadler & Mike Ball
Zoe Sadler & Mike Ball

Gallivant loaded, we boarded. Mike Oram joined us on the aft deck for the briefing with Mike Ball. I’ve met Mike Oram before a few times and obviously crewed on Gallivant for Trent Grimsey’s record-setting swim. However Mike, as usual, gave no indication of knowing me that morning when we arrived and said hello and loaded the gear and then boarded, which was fine with me. However just before the briefing, Mike turned and said “I see we have the Secret Service on board. There will be no filming of the briefing.” An allusion to my obvious-at-the-time filming of his briefing of Trent, a private video which less than twenty people have seen. It seemed he remembered me after all!

Briefing over, leaving the harbour
Briefing over, leaving the harbour

But I wasn’t there for me, I was there for Sylvain, so I smiled and didn’t switch on the camera. Mike went through the specific extra rules that would apply. Those in italics are how they are written on the rules which you can see in closeup in the link above. These rules can apply to any non-freestyle stroke-specific crossing:

  • The stroke must be maintained at all times and start and stops and feeding to be carried out within the spirit of the stroke.
  • Stroke definition was according to accepted principles. (Though not specifically written down here, it was explained that the stroke as defined by FINA. It was re-iterated to Sylvain that this meant simultaneous forward and pull movement of the arms, a correct underwater pull, with no “extra” sweep, simultaneous leg kick, no breaststroke kick, no alternating kick, and no forward movement under another stroke or no forward movement using a transitional stroke including a flutter kick).
  • A 4 card system is to be adopted for swim stroke management. During the swim stroke attempt the swimmer can have up to 3 YELLOW card warnings of stroke deviation, the 4th stroke deviation will receive a RED card to indicate that the swim stroke attempt has been declared as ended.
  • YELLOW cards warnings will be given if there is a deviation from the recognised stroke as declared for more than 20 metres.
  • Reference the swim start- The swimmer must start from a position which is clear of the water. On entering the water the declared stroke must be started within 20 metres or before if the swimmer can no longer walk.
  • Reference swim completion – The stroke must be maintained until the swimmer can stand up and walk clear of the water or they are within 20 metres of the shoreline. Any return to swimming during this period of more than 20 metres must be completed using the declared stroke.
  • Reference feeding and rest stops – During any feeding or rest stops during the swim the declared stroke must be used for any forward motion of more than 10 metres.
  • The swimmer can tread water for feeding/rest stops for up to 5 minutes. A session of short stops will not be accepted if it is the observer’s opinion that such stops are being used as a means of stroke variation.
  • At the end of a feed rest break the swimmer must return to the declared stroke within 20 metres forward distance.
  • RED card warning will indicate tot he swimmer that the attempted with the declared stroke has ceased.
  • The swimmer will then be informed that the swim can continue under the CS&PF rules but the observer’s report will be only considered for ratification as a standard “undefined stroke” swim crossing.
  • The observer’s decision as to stroke compliance is final.
  • The CS&PF reserve the option to video/photograph any part of the swim.

The CS&PF Committee had obviously given due consideration of all aspects of the swim and any possible future questions.

As I wrote above, there was specific mention given to the stroke in the briefing, and even more specifically to the pull phase. Pool butterfly swimmers have had an ongoing discussion for the past fifteen years or so about the use of a breaststroke kick underwater after a turn (only codified this year). The concern about the underwater pull expressed here arose because of suspicion over another well-known swimmer whom it is believed may have employed this tactic.

Happy with the rules
Happy with the rules

Sylle was happy with the rules, and especially the introduction of a YELLOW/RED card system, which, like used in race-walking, was an excellent idea. The few other important requirements such as Sylle’s overall feed plan, and where he would be positioned off the boat (starboard) were quickly covered.

Dover Harbour Entrance IMG_0196

Shortly thereafter we were cast off for the short trip out of the harbour and around the Admiralty Pier toward Shakespeare beach, the transition of the calm water of the harbour and the tide rushing past the entrance much less rough than it can be sometimes. As we rounded the pier, and steamed into the beach on the eastern end, in front of the Port Office, other pilot boats and swimmers left just in front of us, and the civil hours of the start time meant there were more people than usual on the beach, including Greta of course, though the Greatest Sport on Earth is a remarkably private endeavour.

Getting ready, physically & mentally
Getting ready, physically & mentally

Sylvain got ready, donning the Aquadeus swimcap of his French swim gear sponsors, and I greased him up, neck, armpits, sides and the nether regions under the square-leg swimsuit he prefers. Any Channel swim is a scary event. But there was no fright visible in Sylvain, who is always affable and jovial. If there was any fear, I did not see it.

Beach people IMG_8679.resized
Howard is far left, Greta is third left, with Bethany & David

Sylvain & Greta on beach at start IMG_8693.resized.rotatedHe looked calm and ready and with the word, jumped off the boat into the water for the short swim to the shingle of Shakespeare Beach as we hooted loudly. He of course swam butterfly on the way into the beach.

A brief meeting with Greta and other well-wishers on the beach, a turn and pause, a few steps forward, a goggle and hat adjustment. Then he flung himself forward off the steep shingle into La Manche, and we hooted and as Gallivant’s notorious klaxons whooped to mark the start time of 9.45a.m., klaxons which would only sound again to mark a successful crossing.

On to Part 3.

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 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.


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
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.

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.

How To Select a Channel pilot & boat

This time of year I get more emails and PM’s asking about English Channel pilots, tides, Associations, Channel costs etc and all the related stuff.

During a recent weathered-out trip to Dover in September for Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel butterfly swim, which included yet another a trip out into the Channel, a tour of a new CS&PF boat and the usual swim chat, these all led to the suggestion from Lisa Cummins that I come up with a checklist to help prospective swimmers, both Solos and relay and crew, choose a Channel pilot and boat.

Following is a list of questions that you can ask yourself and the pilot. Most of these questions do not require the same answer to provide guidance for every swimmer, as the importance of the answers will be dictated by you and your crew’s experience, the particular swim location, conditions and duration and your own preferences.

You can find all the pilots and boats on the respective Association or Federation page, and some pilots have their own websites.

1. Have you checked with all the pilots for your preferred year, month and tide?

For the past couple of years I’ve been advising people who ask who don’t have a without a strong initial personal preference, to email almost all the pilots to check availability. This is your first step.

Mike and Lance Oram of the CS&PF, and Reg Brickell of the CSA are the pilots most likely to be booked two to four years in advance. Yes, up to four years for the most popular tides with a first slot, with the bookings increasing every year. Most of the pilots will have filled up their Number One slots for August and September two years in advance. Although all the CS&PF pilots operate the slot system, some CSA pilots don’t and book one swimmer per number of days or even a single day. So you need to check if you’ve been told you are Number One, just how long you have that slot.

2. Do you know anyone who has used that pilot? 

Pilots are all trained and experienced in what they do. Most are great. But like any walk of life there is variation and individual swimmers can have different and differing opinions. Given the individual contractual nature of the relationship between a swimmer and pilot, there is no independent rating system. But you should reach out to any open water swim groups you know for feedback. You may or may not get any relevant information, but I wish I’d done it.

It is a fact that the CS&PF has six licensed pilots, while the CSA has been operating seven boats. The restriction by the English Coast Guard allows a maximum of twelve boats in the shipping lane at any one time. So what happens if you are booked on the seventh CSA boat? Or maybe your pilot smokes and this could be a problem for you.

3. What level of comfort on the boat do your relay team or crew require?

Some swimmers don’t care or don’t think about this until too late. But the comfort of your crew or your own relay can be important to some swims.

  • Is there a toilet?
  • Is there enough space to rest?

If you have female crew, the simple requirement of having an onboard toilet is more important than for men.  Relay teams need to use a toilet more. Some CSA boats do not have a toilet (head in marine terms)! Some boats don’t have seats. Some CSA boats don’t even have any protection from the elements.

Mike Oram's Gallivant escorting Irish Channel record setter Tom Healy in 2012
CS&PF Senior Pilot Mike Oram’s Gallivant escorting Irish Channel record setter Tom Healy in 2012. Plenty of weather protection and crew space, charging points and low gunnals.

4. How does the boat handle in rough water ?

Some boats are more uncomfortable in medium or choppy seas than others. If your crew is experienced  this may make no difference, but for others it can be really important if your entire support crew or relay get sick. High-sided boats can roll more depending on the shape and keel ballast. If you are on a relay, especially a two-way then you need more space, room to nap or even sleep and enough space for food and clothes and swim gear for many more people. One way to investigate this is to look at photos of the boats on the websites and again, to ask around.

Channel boat The Viking Princess
Example – CSA Channel boat Viking Princess belong to CSA Channel Pilot legends the Brickell Brothers – biggest boat in the fleet, best protection for swimmers … roughest on crew.

5. What ancillary utilities are on the boat?

The Channel fleet is divided into CS&PF and CSA boats (obviously). If you were to make a sweeping statement comparing one fleet with the other, you could reasonably say that the boats of the CS&PF are more comfortable for crew, with more utilities, as the CSA boats are more likely to be used for fishing out of season.

  • Does the boat have the ability to charge a cell phone or camera or anything electric or electronic? (Some don’t).
  • Does the boat have any facilities for cooking food for your crew? (Some only have a simple two-ring hob)
  • How about ease of  heating water for the swimmer?
  • Can you store extra clothes of food out of the elements?
  • Is there a shower (for relays)? (Paul Foreman’s new boat Optimist has a shower)
Optimist IMG_8646.resized
CS&PF pilot Paul Foreman’s new boat Optimist. Paul is much favoured by Sandycove swimmers. Optimist is the most luxurious/comfortable boat in the fleet.

6. Does the shape of the boat affect your feed strategy?

This only affects solo swimmers but the high side of some boats can mean you will not be able to feed the swimmer directly and must use a pole or line. It may be another thing to consider.

CSA Pilot Eric Harltey's Sea Leopard - Low and wide and stable but with weather protection for crew
CSA Pilot Eric Harltey’s (right) Sea Leopard – Low and wide and stable with weather protection for crew – Hey there’s Haydn Welch as Observer.

7. Is protection by the boat from inclement weather important?

You might not think so, but if you are going in marginal or late season conditions, and have no experience of a boat…

Boat shape and size affects how much protection a swimmer can gain from a difficult wind. Some provide more than others. Is this important to you?

Of course it’s not all about the boat.

CS&PF boats Sea Satin and Suva, operated by Lance Oram and Neil Streeter respectively. Both are high boats with good weather protection. Gallivant and to some extent Anastasia are similar to Sea Satin
CS&PF boats Sea Satin and Suva, operated by Lance Oram and Neil Streeter respectively. Both are high boats with good weather protection. Gallivant and to some extent Anastasia are similar to Sea Satin.

8: Association fee

For the English Channel, swimmers must join either association separately from their contract with the pilot. Do you want a two year or five year membership? The answer to this question might not be as obvious as it first seems.

9. Pilot fee and deposit requirements and payment options

Not all fees are equal. How much is your pilot’s fee? If you are considering a two-way or three-way you need to check the scale. Doubles or triples can be just multiples of a one-way, but they also be applied on a sliding scale, eg, instead of doubling just add £2000. You also need to know what deposit you pay upon booking. Further you need to check how and when the remainder must be paid. Some pilots want the deposit immediately, some want it by the ending of the year before the Channel attempt. Some want fifty-percent paid at that time. Also, some pilots will only accept cash, some will accept a bank transfer. This may not have much impact when choosing a pilot, but can become important later on. It’s reasonable to say that no pilot will take you out without 100% of the fee being paid in advance.

10. Cancellation/No swim/weathered out refunds

Pilots operate different policies in the case of a cancellation or no-swim (weathered out). If you cancel in time usually you only lose your deposit and your association fee if you have paid it. If however you get weathered out there can be differences. With some pilots you will only lose the deposit, with some pilots it’s possible to lose up to 50% of the whole fee.

11. Do you plan to follow your Channel swim with a Manhattan Island Marathon swim?

NYCSwim have decided that CSA English Channel swims are no longer to be treated as automatic qualification. This means CSA Channel swimmers will need more paperwork. Is this important for you? (It certainly is for some swimmers, and it’s another problem I have with NYCSwim; their decision to change this policy without adequate notification for swimmers entering a Channel cycle).

12. Do you care that both organisations recognise your swim?

The CS&PF recognises ratified Channel swims from both organisations. The CSA only recognises CSA swims.


Contrary to first impression, just because I swam with the CS&PF, this is not an anti-CSA jab. I’ve been out on two CSA boats. One had no toilet, no power plugs of any kind, no weather protection. (I liked the pilot a lot though and the crew were great). The other was the roughest boat for inexperienced crew in the entire fleet and the best boat for a swimmer in protection from wind and I know crew who have sworn to never go on it again.

The other Channels such as North, Catalina, Gibraltar and Cook don’t have the same number of boats for swimmers to apply the same principle. Cook only has one, as does Jersey (currently). Catalina and the North Channel both have two pilots and the criteria for choosing in both of those lies more in choosing the approach of the pilot to navigation rather than anything else (hard or soft line, starting point).

Below is a very simple checklist for helping in choosing your English Channel pilot. Remember to choose what you think is important..

(I have pictures of Masterpiece, Anastasia, Rowena, Seafarer II, Connemara etc in my archive but you can find them all on the websites).

EC Pilot checklist

Mercedes Gleitze and the Vindication Swim

Well-known Californian swimmer Jamie Patrick earlier in the year mentioned in the blog comments that he liked reading articles about the history of open water swimming. Apart from what already appears in various books it’s hard to find such stories. But I shortly thereafter carried the story of Tom Blower and the first North Channel swim. (Anytime I think of doing a history post, I imagine Jamie asking me).

At the 2013 Global Open Water Swimming Conference, some of the guests were connected through a historical chain: The Irish Long Distance Swimming Association, Wayne Soutter, and Dolorando Pember.

Wayne Soutter was the first person to complete the Mull of Kintyre route from Scotland to Ireland in 2012, his account covered here. North Channel swims are ratified by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association. And Dolorando Pember is the daughter of Mercedes Gleitze, who first unsuccessfully attempted the Mull of Kintyre route (though she was successful on so many other marathon swims).

Before she attempted the North Channel, Mercedes was an English Channel swimmer, (still the qualifying requirement for a North Channel swim to this day). In light of the Diana Nyad Controversy, the story of Mercedes Gleitze’s English Channel swim, apart from the actual swims,  is very interesting for some timely reasons less obvious than others:  

  • False swim claims have been around for a long time in our sport
  • Other honourable swimmers are negatively affected by false swim claims
  • The development of Official Observation (“ratification”) in swimming


Mercedes Gleitze’s second “Vindication” English Channel swim was widely used for advertising by watch company Rolex, and the story of the Vindication Swim came to me from an website devoted to watches, of all places. With that link to the original in place, below is the story itself, leaving out the later advertising aspect of the article which describes how Mercedes swim was used to make Rolex the well-known watch company it is today.

As an addendum, British Pathe archive has a few great silent movie clips of Mercedes. Starting her second attempt (head-up granny stroke!). A News clip about failing one attempt. Getting married in Dover. Channel season. This one of out-takes has plenty of her swimming.

Note that the terms we still use of Channel Swimmer, Channel Season and Channel Aspirant were all in use in the 1920s despite that less than a dozen swimmers had completed the Channel by the end of that decade.

mercedes-TALIM-open-waterOne investigative source of this story says that the Channel Swimming Association “refused to recognize her swim as legitimate“. The CSA was only founded the same year with their handbook stating: “Since March 1927, English Channel Swims have been organised and regulated by the [CSA] and all Swims officially observed by its designated Officials/Observers  are faithfully recorded“.

The CSA database for 1927 shows three swims and Mercedes Gleitze is recognised as a Channel Swimmer.

Marilyn Morgan, the above blog’s author, comprehensively answers this question when I asked her:

“[T]he CSA asked Gleitze to sign an affidavit verifying she completed the swim unaided. Gleitze refused on principle and was quoted as saying, “the best thing to restore the prestige of British women Channel swimmers in the eyes of the world would be for me to make another Channel swim,” and thus she embarked upon what became known as the Vindication Swim.

Because that swim was undertaken past Channel swimming season and she swam so efficiently for so long in the bitterly cold water under such extreme conditions, the CSA consented that she must have successfully completed the Oct 7 swim and then included it in its records retrospectively. This can be verified through a plethora of British and American newspapers as well as at the archives“.

The Vindication Swim: Mercedes Gleitze and Rolex take the plunge and become world-renowned…By John E. Brozek © InfoQuest Publishing, Inc., 2003     International Wristwatch Magazine, December 2003  

October 7, 1927. It was a cold October morning, and Miss Mercedes Gleitze (1900-1981), a London typist and part-time professional swimmer from Brighton, was about to make her eighth attempt at swimming the English Channel.

Miss Gleitze began her journey at 2:55 a.m., as she entered the murky waters at Gris Nez. The Channel was uninviting, cold and thick with fog. Visibility at times dropped to less than five yards, so a fishing boat from Folkestone led her way—frequently sounding its horn to help avoid the heavy shipping traffic. Her trainer, G.H. Allan, fed her grapes and honey from the boat to keep up her strength, and strong tea and cocoa to help fight the cold.

After overcoming hours of pain and exhaustion—and being nearly run down by a steamer—“her feet touched the chalk rocks between South Foreland and St. Margaret’s Bay”. And at 6:10 p.m., she became just the twelfth swimmer to accomplish the feat, the third woman, and the first Englishwoman. This historic swim lasted fifteen hours and fifteen minutes, and was under bitterly cold conditions, with water temperatures never rising above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It is worth mentioning that attempts at swimming the Channel were usually made earlier in the year (around August) when water temperatures are more accommodating. Why Mercedes elected to swim this late in the year is still uncertain.

Shortly after emerging from the water, Mercedes collapsed from exhaustion into the arms of her trainer, Allan, and her pilot, Harry Shart, Jr. She remained unconscious for nearly two hours, as the small fishing boat ferried her back to the Fish Market at Folkestone, where she was “cheered loudly by a big crowd”. Being in no condition to celebrate, she was quickly taken by taxi to her lodging for the night.

Unfortunately, Gleitze never really got to enjoy her success. Just a few days later, a series of events unfolded that put the legitimacy of her swim into question: On October 11, Dr. Dorothy Cochrane Logan (using her professional name, Mona McLennan), swam the Channel in thirteen hours and ten minutes. With this swim, Logan set a new record time for women, when she “walked a few steps up Folkestone beach”, at 8:50 a.m.

This was the second report of a woman swimming the Channel in less than a week, and suspicions quickly arose as to the legitimacy of her claim. Under heavy scrutiny, Logan soon recanted her story and confessed that her swim was a hoax. With Logan’s confession, Mercedes’ swim also came under suspicion. In a way, she was considered guilty by association and was said to be very upset by the accusations, and, unlike Logan, said, “All right, I’ll do it again”. Thus, the stage was set, and Gleitze was scheduled to swim the Channel again, on October 21, in what was touted as the “Vindication Swim”.

Just a year prior (on July 29, 1926), Rolex patented the first waterproof wristwatch: the Rolex Oyster. When Hans Wilsdorf (the cofounder and Managing Director of Rolex) got word of the vindication swim, he saw this as a golden opportunity to promote his new creation. Wilsdorf wasted no time, and on October 14, dispatched a letter to Miss Gleitze by way of the S. T. Garland advertising service. By this letter, he formally agreed to provide her with a gift wristlet watch to be worn during the upcoming swim. In exchange, Gleitze would provide a written testimonial on the performance of the watch after the swim.

This “Vindication Swim” began at 4:21 a.m., when Mercedes again entered the waters at Cap Gris Nez. However, unlike her previous swim, the fog on this day was minimal and she had a full entourage accompanying her—numerous chase boats were filled with journalists, friends and well-wishers.

At this point, I would like to say that Mercedes Gleitze successfully completed the swim, and the rest, as they say, is history. I would like to say that, but unfortunately it is not the case, and “history” as retold by some over the years is incorrect.

According to the London Times, the conditions during this swim were brutal, with water temperatures ranging from 53 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit—a far cry from the near-60 degree temperatures she endured on her previous swim, just two weeks prior.

Shortly after entering the water, she experienced incredible pain and numbness from the icy water. To help keep her awake, the crowd sang songs, accompanied by musicians playing the banjo and guitar. Unfortunately, this was of little help, and, at 2:25 p.m., it became evident that she would not complete the swim. The bitterly cold conditions caused her to slip in and out of a coma-like state. At 2:45 p.m., she was reluctantly hoisted into the boat, some seven miles short of her goal, and her vindication swim would not be.

Mercedes was surely disappointed by her failure, but the overwhelming reaction from the crowd must have been of some consolation. The reporters, doctors and experts on hand were amazed at her endurance and ability to withstand the treacherous cold for some ten hours and twenty-four minutes. Thus, after witnessing her determination, few if any could doubt the legitimacy of her previous swim—it was, indeed, a victory in defeat.

As she sat in the boat, one such journalist made an incredible discovery and reported it in the London Times as follows: “Hanging round her neck by a riband on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout.”

It may sound a bit more romantic to say that Mercedes wore a Rolex on her wrist as she swam across the English Channel, but this, unfortunately, was not the case. While she did “carry” a Rolex for more than ten hours during her vindication swim, it was not on her wrist, nor was it during the “successful” fifteen-hour swim she is remembered for. This is simply a story that has had some “specifics” misquoted over the years. With that being said, on October 25, 1927, Mercedes Gleitze forwarded a letter to Rolex, which summed it up very well, and read as follows: “You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. Not even the quick change to the high temp of the boat cabin when I was lifted from the water seemed to affect the even tenour of its movement. The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it…”



Shush“, the Dover shingle whispers softly, sub-surface, sub-marine.


In the silty harbour sea, I cannot see my arms or hands or life.

The Dover shingle shifts. Slides and settles. We sigh together.

I am swimming with my eyes closed, and the shingle says “shush” and I open them and swim on.


Dover Harbour
Dover Harbour



I’ve written about the sound of swimming in Dover previously, but without explanation. Dover Harbour, not the most pleasant of swimming locations, is aurally different to any other location that I’ve swum and something about that sound reaches into me every time I hear it. Sometimes you really have to write for yourself.


One species, not evolved for swimming

Kevin Murphy, Trent Grimsey, Philipe Croizon, Jackie Cobell, Roger Allsop, Owen O’Keefe

Kevin, Trent, Philipe, Jackie, Roger, Owen

In order from left:

  • Kevin Murphy, The King of the Channel, with 34 Solo crossings and a multitude of swims elsewhere around the world, he also has swum longer than anyone else who has ever lived
  • Trent Grimsey, 2012 FINA World number one open water swimmer and the fastest English Channel Soloist, (who has just retired from Professional swimming)
  • Philipe Croizon, the first limbless person to Solo the English Channel
  • Jackie Cobell, the slowest English Channel Soloist, Bering Strait Relay
  • Roger Allsop, the oldest English Channel Soloist
  • Owen O’Keefe, Ireland’s youngest ever Channel Soloist, Round Jersey Male Record Holder and more

There are a few things that strike me about them.

First is that what unites them is greater than what separates them. Each of them is a Soloist. Each of them has aspired to be a Soloist. Each has felt the pain of the Channel and overcome it. Each is a member of the same small group. If you are a member of a group to achieve something which has only a twelve hundred members or so worldwide, then you can be the slowest, fastest, first or most often, prettiest, or even average and still belong.

Anyone can aspire to belong to the same group. All that differentiates these people from others in that area is desire. How much desire do you think it took Philipe or Jackie? How much for Kevin to keep going back when once is enough for most people? What about Roger attempting something people less than half his age have failed to do? Desire to succeed is what unites them.

Second is another facet of the differences, the range. If all these people exemplify some ideal of Channel swimming, not only do you NOT have an option to say: it’s ok for them, I couldn’t do it, but even better, you’ll likely fall into the very very broad middle ground. You’ll may be over 10 ten hours but under 20 hours. You may get completely average (for the Channel) weather conditions. Or you may not. You may have Force Six winds or be the fastest swimmer of your generation. There is a wide range which can accommodate you, and still, at the end, you will belong to the same species. A species that isn’t evolved for swimming, that instead used disruptive motions to progress through water, and as a consequence derives meaning from pursuing that which we weren’t evolved to tackle.

Lastly, taken as a whole, the group almost defines the limits of swimming possibility or maybe even that the limits haven’t yet been reached. They have all done something no-that by definition no-one else has. They set markers to which many more can aspire and by edging closer out onto the edge of human capability, they illuminate the way for the rest of us.


HOW TO: Crew selection in marathon swimming

I was reminded in a phone conversation with Oldest, Coldest and Fastest North Channel swimmer Fergal Somerville that I’ve been meaning to write this for a couple of years.

In all the training and preparation for any Channel or marathons swim, most effort goes into swimming of course. A well prepared swimmer will also consider feeds and feed schedule, pilot, tide, weather and accommodation.

But it’s a remarkable fact that quite a few swimmers either ignore crew selection, leave it too late, or choose the crew based on incorrect assumptions.

Every Channel pilot will be able to tell stories of swims aborted early or ruined because of poor crew choices. Individual stories aren’t necessary but the various problems can certainly be categorised into the two main problems:

  • Debilitating seasickness
  • Undue concern for swimmer

If you’ve never experienced or seen severe seasickness up close, it’s easy to imagine that it’s something that one should be able to think their way out of, or at least endure, like going to work for a day with a head cold or mild ‘flu. But severe seasickness can be completely debilitating and the afflicted can often do no more than lie in one place with eyes closed, every second a minute, every minute a day, rousing themselves only to throw up.

Severely seasick crew may be utterly unable to carry out essential functions such as regularly mixing feeds, following a feed schedule and feeding and monitoring a swimmer. A swimmer left without a crew must then rely on the boat crew or the observer, who have other essential tasks and responsibilities.

Many swimmers do know to pick crew with sea experience, but don’t extend the requirement to the necessary extent. When choosing swim support crew based on sea experience, that experience must include time spend at on a boat in a slow or unpowered state. What does that mean? Just that many people won’t experience seasickness while whizzing around on a powered RIB or cruiser but a boat moving at swim speed is far more subject to the vagaries of the ocean state and will bob and heave far more significantly. For my own English Channel swim I asked my friend Clare, herself a very experienced open ocean sailor, as I knew she had sea-legs for all conditions. The other side of a seasick crew , apart from a lack of support for the swimmer, is the possibility that it will distract the swimmer if they see extreme distress in a loved one, something that has stopped a smaller number of swims.

The second problem above is less initially clear. It’s best illustrated by an anecdote. A friend was crewing for an English Channel solo they didn’t know, having answered an online request for crew. The only other crew was the swimmer’s girlfriend.  At six or seven hours into the swim, my friend went below decks to heat water. When she returned only mere minutes later the swimmer was climbing out of the water. The girlfriend, concerned about the swimmer’s exhausted looking state (quite normal) told the swimmer he should stop. A moment of weakness by both was all that was needed to allow the swimmer an exit. No-one is really to blame, but experienced Channel crew would never have offered the option unless the swimmer was in real trouble.

Personal concern for a swimmer in the moment, can stop some people from seeing the swimmer’s greater goal. A lack of understanding or experience of what a Channel requires from a swimmer, both physically and mentally, can make looking at the wracking hardship in a loved one quite difficult. Some partners or close family of course can understand what a swim means to the person and may be actually able to provide extra motivation better than anyone else, but this isn’t a gamble that really should be taken for the first time in a Channel swim.

Crew working.resized
Crew busy with different functions during Trent Grimsey’s record-setting swim- watching, preparing feed and communication, encouragement and photo recording.

Choosing crew

Given these two constraints there are still options to find crew. The first most obvious step is to simply ask experienced swim crew. There are key sources of experienced swim crew which go along with the main sources of Channel swimmers and training locations; Dover, London, Cork, Dublin, San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, Perth, Melbourne and Chicago are all hotbeds of Channel swimming. Many of the Sandycove swimmers have crewed for each other for example. Visiting Dover or California it’s certainly possible to do so without any crew and find one or more of the local swimmers who will crew. The same works for most of the major Channels.

The optimum is to find someone who has already crewed, which gives a good (but not absolute) indicator of their likely utility. Someone who has swum will be very useful in understanding what the swimmer is going through, and is less likely to be either too unconcerned or too soft. The best crew choice is probably a combination of both, people with swim and crew experience.

If you aren’t part of one of these groups, then the most popular way is to put a request on the Google Channel Swimmers chat group (you’ll have to join first). Many people who are contemplating a solo will take this option to see the Channel up close. The more information one gives about swimming experience, current crew and a good understanding of a Channel swim will result in a better response.

Here’s a simple request I sent to the group in 2012:

“We’re looking for a third UK-based crew person for a solo in the window from the 6th to 14th of September. Obviously being UK-based, you wouldn’t need to be there for the entire window.

The swimmer is Alan Clack, coming from the US. The two Irish crew members already on-board, so to speak, have both soloed and crewed the EC.

We’d prefer someone who has already crewed, and/or has either soloed or is already signed up for a solo, or has been out on a relay”.

This request explained the nationality of the crew, in case that was an advantage or problem, that Owen and I already had experience so any volunteer wouldn’t be expected to know and do everything. This request resulted in Jim Boucher, a two-time English Channel Soloist joining the crew as third person.

Experience has also shown that every crew should have a crew-chief. This is the person who is in charge of the swim from the boat. So this job is usually best done by a swimmer, as it may require decisions on feed or feed schedule changes and a good idea of when to push the swimmer. The person doesn’t have to be the person communicating with the swimmer, but the task of swimmer communication should only be done by one person. This reduces confusion and lost time over the course of a long swim and leads to a quicker and simpler swim.

Watching Alan - Jim & myself busy with Alan, Owen on camera
Watching Alan – Jim & myself busy with Alan, Owen on camera

Which brings me to the final part; how many crew do you need?  The accepted rule-of-thumb for a one-way is three swim crew (excluding boat crew and Observer). This reduces the chance of all being struck down by mal-du-mer. With three crew and thirty minute feeds, one person can act as crew chief, who’s principle function is swimmer communication and watch. The other crew can mix and pass out feeds and update social media. It’s certainly possible to do it with less. I took two reliable crew but when conditions became very bad, they could have used another hand. Gábor took six and only two of us didn’t develop seasickness and we were very busy. Trent Grimsey had four crew for his English Channel record. For longer swims such as two-ways, crew will require rest, unlike the swimmer, so four or even more may be required. Relay teams may not need crew, but the recent Irish two-record team of Crosoige Mara with two-way English Channel swimmer Lisa as crew showed it to be beneficial.

Your crew selection is a critical part of any marathon swim. You should pay due attention equivalent to any other component, as none of us are really solo swimmers and a crew can make or break a swim.

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 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 (Dover), or For example Mike Oram’s Gallivant is MMSI 235023353.

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


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


  • 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.

A guide to Dover for swimmers – Part 2 – Varne Ridge Caravan Park

Varne Ridge Caravan Park is such a personal part of the Channel swimming experience for myself and so many others that it is impossible to contemplate a Dover visit without Varne (as it is called) being an integral part. Every Channel swimming or crewing trip of mine to date (and I’m losing count) has involved a stay in Varne, and on the other occasions when I’ve visited Dover, a stop at Varne to say hello to my adopted parents is a prerequisite and guarantee.

Varne Ridge Channel Swimming Caravan Park is situated on the White Cliffs south of Dover, in Capel-le-Ferne, about halfway between Dover and Folkestone and is owned and operated by David and Evelyn Frantzeskou. It is named after the Varne Sands which is a sand bank directly out in the Channel where the Varne Lightship, well-known to Channel Swimmers, is anchored.

Apart from some regular repeat customers, and as indicated on the sign, Varne Ridge caters exclusively for Channel swimmers and is available by prior booking only. It is so exceedingly and justifiably popular with Channel swimmers that you are best advised to book your stay at the same time as you are booking your Channel swim.

Varne has a collection of fixed mobile homes or varying sizes, a studio apartment, and a couple of houses on the same short stretch of road and a few berths for caravans for their regular visitors. Everything is situated in a small park behind the house where David and Evelyn live. There is also an external shower block and toilets, useful when you are sharing a home with lots of swimmers all wanting to use the shower at the same time.

Sitting as it does high on the cliffs above the Channel, directly across from Cap Gris Nez, the ultimate goal of Channel swimmers, Varne is subject to both the unusual almost-French amounts of Sun and yet also the excesses of the storms of the English Channel and the winds that you can imagine afflicit the top of a one hundred metre cliff. Your weather memories of Varne will likely be one or both of the two extremes, glorious sun looking at the Channel and wondering why you are not swimming, or howling wind and rain. Usually both.

What makes Varne so ideal for swimmers are a number of factors.

  • The primary reason: David and Evelyn.

David & Evelyn IMG_8381.resized.rotatedI am not the only swimmer in the world that treats both as surrogate parents. They are always solicitous and helpful, personal and personable. You feel they are looking after you. This alone is a reason to choose Varne over any other accommodation. I cannot imagine another hospitality venue in the world that endures the same extreme highs and lows that afflict any and every swim tide and does it week in and week out. Every tide window sees successful and unsuccessful swims and David and Evelyn are part of each and supportive of all. Every successful swimmer returning to Varne will be greeted by their national flag hoisted at the camp entrance. That’s not insignificant. If you’ve never had your own country flag raised for an achievement of yours previously, it’s quite special.


  • Clean self-catering

Eat like a Channel Swimmer, Swim like a Channel Eater. Channel swimmers eat a lot and all the time. It’s therefore so much easier and cheaper to do your own catering. Every visitor to Varne finds the accommodation will already have milk and tea and coffee and maybe some biscuits and cereal in place for the first essential cuppa. Each house or mobile home has all the essentials for the serial eating and cooking required of crews of swimmers and support. Many departing groups leave unopened food behind, and while things are always immaculately clean, if you arrive late night Dave & Ev usually will have sufficient supplies to tide you over any initial lack (pun intended).

  • Other swimmers

This is a huge attraction of the park. During Channel season the homes rotate swimmers and crews. You will get to know the other swimmers on your tide window, more if you are unlucky with weather, swimmers on other tides. Not everyone likes the idea of swimmers popping in and out so your privacy is your own to keep or adapt, as you see fit, and should you want to engage in yet more swimming talk, because your life doesn’t have enough of it, you will find and get to know swimmers from around the world. I’ve met swimmers there from North and South America, across Europe, the Middle-east, Africa, Oceania and the Far East. Not least is the possibility that depending on the year and time, there could be an entire squad of Irish there. This is a good thing, we bring the craic (and Evelyn is half-Irish also). Each house and mobile home also has a visitors book. Great pleasure is derived from reading these and seeing your friends or maybe even heroes and even signing your own.

  • Swim support

David and Evelyn provide a lot of the equipment needed for Channel swimming. Flasks, blankets, feed poles, whiteboards, grease, electronic lights and even feed material left behind by other teams, some like the food mixes are gratis if they are there, some for purchase (lights and Channel grease which is hard to find if you don’t make your own, and no longer available in Dover) and a large supply of swim boxes for boats. No need to buy things you will use once if you’ve travelled a long way. (Though you also shouldn’t rely on Varne happening to have sufficient swim feed material lying around, as I’ve seen happen).

  • Cost and comfort

Channel swimming, solo or relay, is not a cheap pursuit. Uptight swimmers may have no interest is visiting tourist attractions prior to a swim. Long days of web-browsing and kill time when not swimming are more comfortable when you can come and go as you please without the essential claustrophobia that hotels can provide. and provide hotel rooms for many people can become very expensive very easily.

  • The Varne Ridge Channel swimmer plaques

The walls on either side on the entrance of the park are covered by commemorative plaques for the swims of everyone who has stayed in Varne. New plaques are added every year after the end of season. These are far nicer and more photogenic than the White Horse signatures. Swimmers never get tired of looking at these, searching out friends and well-known swimmers.

Varne plagues IMAG0261-resized

  • The view

Passing Varne you can tell the swimmers. Dave and Ev own the patch on the land on the cliff side of the road and swimmers shuttle back and forward throughout the day, to sit on the benches and stare at the battlefield, getting lost in our thoughts. Following an idea by Rob Bohane, a new bench was placed in Varne by Sandycove Island swim club and friends last November in memory of our sadly and tragically departed Pariac Casey, lost to the Channel in 2012. Paraic had of course stayed in Varne as have all the Sandycove swimmers.

Channel Dawn; The Separation Zone. Cap Gris Nez is directly opposite Varne Ridge
Channel Dawn; The Separation Zone. Cap Gris Nez is directly opposite Varne Ridge
  • Varne is not in Dover

Once you’ve seen Dover, what might initially seem to be a problem, turns to be a positive. A car is essential for Varne, but you are less than ten minutes from Swimmer’s Beach.

I’m still waiting for David and Evelyn to pass on the operation of Varne to Dee and I, despite promises! I can imagine nothing better. Ah well…

I am not an unbiased reviewer of Varne Ridge. I love the place and am always happy to return. I cannot recommend Varne Ridge highly enough as an essential part of the Channel swimming experience.

Tell them Donal sent you.

Paraic's Bench



HOW TO: Marathon and Channel Swimming Swimmer and Crew Checklist (updated for 2013)

This list below was originally based on Freda Streeter’s English Channel check-list though it has evolved quite substantially.

I’ve reorganised the PDF by swimmer/crew/feeds/travel for ease of use. By the third version I added version numbers so you can keep track.

Major changes for June 2013 (Ver 3.0) include a new Travel section.

The list includes some things that Freda recommends and advises and is optimised for cool or cold water marathon swimming.

It also includes some optional but nonetheless useful items based on experience.

I’ve changed and added to it over the last couple of years and it’s now my personal check list and as such tends to evolve and change. (Items in blue are essential).

Some are very, very obvious but the dangerous things about check-list are forgetting to add the obvious and unspoken but essential, or not checking things off the check list.

Simplified PDF version without notes for direct printing.


  • Dry-bag for boat for swimmer clothes. (I use the large 44 litre one in the link).
  • Swimming Costumes.
  • Swimming Goggles and Spares: Minimum one pair each of clear and dark goggles (if you start in or swim into the dark you will need clear, you will need dark/tinted for bright sunlight).
  • Earplugs + spares.
  • Swim Cap and Spares. Use bright colours.
  • Towels. Apart from regular towels I’ve added both a travel micro-fibre towel and swimmer’s chamois towel for the many swims in Dover. I use a car-drying chamois, same product, quarter of the price!
  • Rain gear for swimmer.
  • Old warm, loose clothes for post-swim. (You will urinate heavily after the swim to eliminate intracellular fluids, so make your clothes are easy to open or lower. Remember if the boat is rough you may need to sit on a toilet).
  • Grease.
  • Light sticks - 4 or more (I use Adventure Lights, reusable, brighter and therefore safer and nothing difficult to dispose of afterwards). Test your batteries!
  • Safety pins for fixing lights.
  • Shoe organiser. Idea from Penny Palfrey, via English Channel Soloist Craig Morrison. Used to separate all the swimmer’s gear into individual compartments.


  • Foul weather gear for crew.
  • Blanket or Old Sleeping Bag.
  • Spare plastic Ziploc bags - I had some in my bag just in case I needed to take something last-minute out on the boat.
  • Food for your crew.
  • Latex gloves (or plastic bags) to apply grease.
  • String and/or Zip-ties because boats.
  • Duct-tape. Because you never know.
  • Make sure phones are set to auto select Networks before swim or they may lose cover and not know why.
  • Spare Carabiners – I got a bag of small mixed sizes for €5.
  • Bottled Water (Plenty) (Use only litre bottles; your crew cannot manage to pour from larger bottles in choppy water. (I used 1.5 litre bottles in MIMS and EC, no bother).
  • Chargers or extra batteries for phones and cameras on board. (Gábor uses a Power Monkey Solar charger).
  • (Underwater) Camera (with flash) to take on board. If conditions are right and you have a swimmer going to the beach with you they will need a waterproof camera.
  • Marker pens and masking tape. Masking tape makes a good base for writing on plastic bottles. Duct tape also works.
  • Wetsuit for support swimmers. It’s about the swimmer, not the crew. Best to stay warm to function best as crew.
  • SPOT GPS tracker. Visible to others. Test beforehand and get link. Most English Channel Pilots already have these but not all. They are now affordable and very valuable for engaging others in your swim.

Feeds and medical supplies

  • Feed schedule. I suggest you laminate it and bring copies and a pen to write on the laminate in case of rain.
  • Maxim (or whatever your choice of Carb is).
  • Measuring Scoop. I almost forgot this after putting my Maxim in plastic bags for ease of transportation.
  • Cups or Feeding Bottles. Mike Oram suggests plastic Milk Cartons as feed bottles. If using these, collect extra lids before you go as some will definitely get lost by the swimmer, and you want to keep salt water getting in the bottle.
  • Retractable Dog Leash or line, (as I previously suggested, the crew unspools it to feed the swimmer, easy and quick to retract). I’ve used it in the Channel in rough water, it works really well. Alternatively a Mason’s reel, fencing reel, kite reel. Anything to quickly spool out or reel in long lines. Make sure you have a spare backup line in case the first breaks (as happened to me). I’ve tested the dog-leash in the Channel and it  works really well with carabiners.
  • Fruit juice (Cordial, squash, whatever your choice of additive to feed is. I put my squash in a squeezy water bottle.)
  • Mouthwash (make sure your crew mix 50/50 or it will burn your delicate mouth. Delicate was on the original list, I imagine Freda (Streeter) writing that with a certain sense of humour about complaining swimmers. I use a 2:1 water/mouthwash mix, as 50/50 is too strong for me).
  • Tea Bags or Coffee.
  • Electrolyte. But with zero carbs. Maxim Electrolyte is zero carbs. I changed to Zyn with Caffeine for MIMS, it was better.
  • Chocolate Bar and Cadbury’s Chocolate Rolls, Milky ways go down a treat and do not stick to the roof of your mouth. (I didn’t use either of these – these are a real Freda thing. Some use Fry’s Turkish Delight or other for same reason.) Choice maybe peaches or Kendall Mint Cake etc instead.
  • Ibuprofen. (Anti-inflammatory).
  • Paracetamol (Solpadeine, Neurofen or similar stronger painkiller for the latter half of swim).
  • Anti-histamine (I’ve never tested nor used these during swims).
  • I also bring Colpermin Peppermint capsules to stop any potential pre-diarrhoea stomach spasms. They work really well and you don’t taste the peppermint.
  • Immodium or something to stop actual diarrhoea – Just in case.
  • Personal medication. Plan in advance. For example as an asthmatic, I discussed with my GP who prescribed a spare antibiotic to take just in case I got a chest infection since I can recognise the early symptoms.
  • Suntan lotion. Discussion on the forum on this subject amongst people who have greater sun protection requirement than Irish & UK folk.
  • Masking tape and permanent markers – masking tape is useful for labelling bottles that won’t take ink easily.
  • Dryboard or chalkboard and enough dryboard markers. If they get in any way damp they stop working quickly. You’ll need dry paper towel or similar to wipe & dry the board. Never used chalkboard on a boat myself, could be even more difficult in wet weather?
  • Funnel for mixing feeds. Make sure it has a wide neck, you can cut the top off a plastic One Litre bottle. If doing so make sure the funnel is slightly smaller than the bottle it is going into!
  • Wet cloth with plenty of washing up liquid, tied into a plastic bag, just in case, you or crew might want it after swim, useful for getting any grease off hands.
  • Whiteboard and whiteboard markers.
  • Torch for signalling for night feeds. (Maglite Mini LED etc).
  • More water and Maxim than you think you need. My view is enough for at least 6 hours (one tide) extra swimming if doing a Channel swim , but I obviously have a specific reason, it’s what I took and we were almost at the end of it for the English Channel. Boats DO NOT carry excess water, contrary to what many landlubbers think.
  • Notebook and pen for your crew chief. Tell them to record everything. 

Travel (new section for 2013 – mostly optional)

  • Power strip/power adaptor (The single most valuable new addition to the list). Many places you stay with crew will not have enough power outlets.  One extra 4-socket power adaptor solved this problem.
  • Microfibre travel towels as outlined above. Essential if you are in Dover and the weather is rubbish, and you are trying to get towels dry.
  • Unlocked mobile phone. If you can borrow/get an unlocked phone you can just purchase credit for anywhere. Mobile phone bills can be a big problem returning home from a foreign swim. For English Channel / North Channel / Gibraltar you will need credit from both countries.
  • Unlocked wireless broadband adaptor OR Android smartphone with Hotspot adaptor.
  • National flag
  • Twitter / Google+ / blog / Facebook passwords
  • Thong sandals (Dover only, but essential for swimmers)
  • Country map. Don’t rely on GPS.
  • Parking permits / tickets (for duration of swim)
  • Keypod or SurfLock or similar (lockable safe for safely attaching keys to car during training swims)
  • Folding chair(s) & bungee. Some English Channel pilot boats don’t have anywhere to sit comfortably on deck. A folding chair might be essential for some crew members. Only useful of course in appropriate weather. Use the bungee to hold it place against the superstructure.

Related Articles:

Here’s a simplified PDF with all the extra notes removed for ease of use and direct printing.

Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 3 – Psychological Factors

The previous two posts dealt with the physiological and environmental limiting factors of marathon swimming. As noted in Part One, non-swimmers and those unfamiliar with the sport tend to see the physiological factors as the greatest hurdles for swimming further distance, often imagining that marathon swimmer’s have some physical capability beyond the average person whereas the Environmental Factors in Part Two are possibly more likely to be a governing factor.

Assuming a swimmer has done the training, for unsuccessful swims the environmental factors are more likely to cause a swim to either not start at all or to be abandoned, and of those weather will always be the swimmer’s greatest challenge.

Experienced swimmers however will generally mostly agree that marathons swims are “more mental than physical”. And because of the complexity of individual psychology, these factors are not as easily codified or itemized, and what I may consider the greater challenges may be not such an important item for someone else, but some can be identified.


Alan Clack at Varne, waiting for the word and the weather
Alan Clack at Varne, waiting for the word and the weather

Of all the aspects of marathon swimming that I feel are most misunderstood, this aspect may be the least appreciated. It is very difficult to explain the psychological pressure endured by a swimmer who is waiting for a weather window to open. The swimmer may have invested two years of their life and a not-insignificant amount of money, only to find they don’t even know if they will swim. Depending on the person this can lead to stress and lost sleep. While this occurs prior to the swim, assuming there is a wait period, it’s impossible though to know if or how many swims may have been unsuccessful because of the pre-swim stress affecting the actual swim.

Other swimmers, having waited a lifetime for an English Channel solo in particular, can make poor last-minute decisions or changes regarding crew or feeding. Others feel that having waited those years, they must take chances. Probably the most likely impact of waiting is the decision to swim in a marginal weather opportunity that they would otherwise not have swum in. It is very easy to say this from the outside, much much less so from inside the bubble of the waiting swimmer in a marginal situation, when the pilot isn’t giving a clear indication and the decision rests with the swimmer.

Uncertain duration

Almost all swimmers step into the water with some target time or duration in mind, even if it never articulated to anyone else. Some of us learn this error the hard way and spend the rest of our swimming lives repeating it. All that counts is standing up in France is my own oft-repeated variation. A number of swimmers have found that their swim due to be two or six hours longer than expected, they have no desire to continue.  (You might recall this was the subject of a question I asked Harley Connolly, Trent Grimsey’s coach, prior to his English Channel record attempt, whether he would continue if he wasn’t on record target). Imagine this extra time extrapolated to a two-way Channel swim or a Cuba to Florida swim, when the estimated time is subject to even greater deviation. Imagine you are expecting to be swimming for 40 hours (40 hours!) and then you are told “no, it’ll be 54 hours“, longer than anyone else has ever swim? That would bring a unique psychological weight. But all additional swim time brings the possibility of being too much for a particular swimmer.

Unprepared for or unexpected events

Many marathon swimmers will go through personal form of visualisation to help ensure a successful swim. Maybe imagining picking up a rock on Vista Point or Cap Griz Nez or returning home successful. Visualisation is a powerful and well-known tool for athletes (and others). For swimmers this visualisation can include the various things than go awry during a swim, such as worsening weather or digestion or elimination issues. But what happens when reality sidesteps your visualised possibilities? Swimmers expecting a usual night-time start who instead find they have a mid-morning start and therefore will be swimming into the night instead of into the day? It is a more difficult thing to have night after ten hours of swimming than to have dawn after six hours. One is a prolonged boost, the other can act as a mental hurdle or even cliff.

Steve Munatones regularly repeats that the most important rule of open water swimming is to expect the unexpected. But while that’s correct and reasonable, it’s also easier said than done when the nature of unexpected events is to blind-side us. Some can be dealt with and the better the training and the more the experience the more likely the swimmer is to have to run into various scenarios. The epitome of this type of preparation surely has to Lisa Cummins whose training included every possible variation she could manage, from deep cold to night swims, to various feeding methods to the Torture swim, this type of training common to Sandycove Island Swim Club Channel Aspirants. All are intended to give the swimmer the broadest possible well of experience from which to draw. But there is always something unexpected out there for every swimmer. How can you prepare for solid fog? How can you prepare for getting trapped under the pilot-boat?


It can be said that the question the endurance athlete dislikes the most is Why do you do it? We all have our own particular reasons for swimming, every swimmer’s motivation is a unique recipe which includes some obvious ingredients such as proving something to themselves, looking for limits, fighting the inevitable onslaught of age, or simply loving open water swimming. To these will be others particular to the individual, such as seeking approval, validation, remembrance of someone, or overcoming some physical hindrance or others.

Whatever the unique blend of the swimmer’s psyche they may find that in the heat of battle, those reasons evaporate or are not sufficient or may have been misdirected. This isn’t a criticism, it doesn’t mean those swimmers are missing something. Instead for some swimmers it is in the swim that they discover something about themselves or their motivation which means that finishing a swim is no longer necessary to meet those internal expectations or reasons or that the training or the swim itself regardless of outcome was the real reward. Whichever is the case only the swimmer themselves knows the internal landscape and the rewards and losses and costs of the effort, successful or otherwise.

Self doubt

Made of water
Made of Water

Or should it be self-belief? How I title this section is surely more a reflection of my own mental landscape than any definite assertion. If you read about any adventures sports or know or follow any adventure or top class sports people like Adventurer Dan Martin, Ocean’s Seven swimmer Stephen Redmond, International elite swimmer Chris Bryan or adventurer Lewis Pugh or many others on Twitter, something you’ll notice amongst many (but not all) of them is that they post inspirational quotations. Some come from themselves, some are quotations that come from others that they have found useful or that they appreciate and wish to use to inspire others. In a way these quotations act like a shorthand for the internal mental effort required.

Part of the nature of the human condition is self-doubt and it is one of the most limiting factors of all. After all without wishing to start repeating a lot of those inspirational quotations, the person who believes they can, and the person who believes they can’t are both right. If I quote that, it doesn’t mean that I absolutely follow it. Personally the problem I have with inspirational quotations is that they make me feel inadequate, with all their exhortation of overcoming and victory. Life seems to me at best a series of compromises.

Nonetheless a certain amount of self-belief is required for big swims, or anything else. You need the belief that you can keep turning the arms over for the next ten minutes, feed interval, hour, tide, night or day. Some of that comes from training or experience, some of it comes from knowing yourself. Some of it we learn along the way. But we can also run out of it and run up against limits. Almost all of us have some limit to it.

Despite that, I have my own favourites. This Socrates quotation from a long time ago remains a favourite. During Channel training my training log said “Today is the Channel” so I would remind myself of the journey every day. Another is simply; “I do not stop when I am tired. I stop when I am done“. Even if I don’t always believe it, or myself…

This is another of the private internal battles the swimmer must undergo. The biggest difference between the same person who stepped off the beach in England, and who swam ashore in France, is the increase in self-belief, what we usually term confidence.

An extract from Channel Swimmer David Walliams' Channel mental training preparation
An extract from Channel Swimmer David Walliams’  mental training preparation

There are of course the other more mundane psychological aspects of a marathon swimmer’s life: Boredom, worrying about imminent physical problems, regretting missed training, anxiety about water depth or creatures, or ever embarrassment about bodily elimination, these are the ongoing easier understood issues of a marathon swim. But no less important for being more mundane or easier to convey.

Channels swimmers often say it is 10% physical and 90% mental. I prefer to think that it is 90% physical. And 90% mental.

Unlike most of the items in Parts One and Two, these aspects are neither visible, nor particular to marathons swimmers. And yet they can be bigger hurdles for being invisible and private and general.

But the biggest hurdle isn’t necessarily one or the other, but the one that either stops you or took the most to overcome.

Next time you look at any endurance athlete or event and in particular marathon swimmers, I hope I’ve given you some idea of the Limiting Factors with which each and every one must necessarily deal.

What’s the best possible English Channel record?

Trent Grimsey’s Channel record again raises the question: What’s the best possible English Channel record time?

Here’s the English Channel record progression charted.

No good record list is complete without an asterisk. In this case the asterisked years are France to England (F-E) swims. The records are gender independent as three women set the record. As any reading of Channel swimming will tell you, the original England to France direction (now the only direction available unless doing a two-way) is considered tougher as the big tidal current challenge occurs at the end and is often critical to whether swims are completed.

Name Year Time Interval
Captain Matthew Webb E-F 1875 21:25
 Enrico Tiroboschi F-E 1923* 16:33 48
 Gertrude Ederle F-E 1926* 14:39 3
Ernest Vierkoetter F-E 1926* 12:40 0
 Georges Michel F-E 1926* 11:05 0
Hassan Abdel Rehim F-E 1950* 10:50 24
 Helge Jensen E-F 1960 10:23 10
 Barry Watson F-E 1964* 09:35 4
 Tina Bischoff E-F 1976 09:03 12
Erdal Acet  E-F 1976 09:02 0
 Nasser el Shazly E-F 1977 08:45 1
 Penny Lee Dean E-F 1978 07:40 1
Chad Hundeby E-F 1994 07:17 16
Christof Wandratsch E-F 2005 07:03 11
 Petar Stoychev E-F 2007 06:57 2
Trent Grimsey E-F 2012 06:55 5

That’s 15 records subsequent to Captain Webb’s first swim, regardless of distance with Peggy Lee Dean’s 1978 record as the first sub-8 hour swim, and any swim under 10 hours is still considered a very fast swim, and 10 to 12 hours is also still considered fast.

The past four records have seen a time reduction of 22 minutes, similar to each improvement in most of the previous records after Georges Michel in 1926.

Below is a chart of the reducing times, flattening all the time as the ultimate time comes closer.

Gertrude Ederle (1905 – 2003), American compet...
Gertrude Ederle (1905 – 2003), American competitive swimmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s important to note that the third Soloist, (and subsequently the world’s most famous athlete of the time), Gertrude Ederle, was the first to swim what we now recognise as front crawl, which all subsequent record holders have used and the slope of decreasing times after her swim is shallower. It should be readily obvious, given that the five recent records were all set by swimmers considered amongst the world’s fastest, and four of them as professionals, that any further improvements will incremental rather than large and I’ve therefore set the minimum time on the chart at six hours.. I’ve already written at some length about swimming on bow and displacement waves. I’ve already written that every Channel swim is assisted to some extent, purely by virtue of the presence of a pilot boat which provides wind shelter, so there no need to rehash that ground.

In MIMS, there has apparently been some substantial computer modelling of the currents to produce a theoretical maximum possible. This is not currently possible for the English Channel, or at least for it to be possible, one would need a lot more data measurement points, i.e. buoys, in the Channel, which would interfere with shipping, to no significant advantage.

The August edition of H2Open magazine had an article on Petar Stoychev’s English Channel record, including an interview from Mike Oram, and David and Evelyn had a copy in Varne Ridge, which we all read in the days before Alan and Trent’s swims.

Mike had pointed out that Stoychev had had “a perfect day for a record” (starting with a “brisk north-westerly” which they surfed out which later “swung south-south-west to slow up the tide”). He’d also already done one of the fastest ever Channel swims and so was familiar with the Channel, and he had the psychological advantage of a virtual race with Russian Yuri Kudinov who was attempting a Channel record the same day. In fact Mike Oram said it was “the fact that both swam on the same day and within such a short time gap that pushed them both to their limits – and a bit beyond. This is what records are made from“. Earlier in the week, Mike allegedly said to Trent, (I wasn’t there), “it was a one-in-ten-years day”.

Sylvain Estadieu, Channel swimmer and Sandycove swimmer-at-large asked on the Channel Chat Group what Mike Oram thought the best time could be. For the sake of this I’ll assume readers are not on that group (mostly, nothing happens there).

I’m not going to just reprint it all, just the relevant parts, you don’t need to read Mike Oram’s usual swimmers are just my third engine diatribe:

With Trent and Petar braking [sic] the record was really down to the weather and sea conditions. Trent had better weather on the day although it was not what was forecast or what we expected would last long enough for a record crossing. The gentle North Westerly gave Trent the advantage of a small surfing sea that enabled him to building up a 7 minute lead over the first 3 hours. He then held Petar’s swim pace for an hour or so before starting to slow and fall back in the 5th hour.

From then on it was touch and go as the seconds were lost. Things changed when Petar’s phone calls helped to motivate him and luckily for Trent the weather just kept on improving. A late boost in the tidal flow also helped him towards the point at the Northern tip of Cap Gris Nez where his landing and clearing of the water was clean and quick.

Petar lost about 1.5 to 2 minutes getting up onto the rocks as he did not follow our instructions and go for the right landing place when we reached Cap Gris Nez”.

Most interestingly, Mike also said:

There is a possible Spring tide swim that could bring the record down to about the 6 hours 20 or less mark – but it will be a brave and good swimmer that puts their reputation on the line and makes the attempt. The Spring tide swim was tried by Christof a couple of years ago but his speed was not good enough to hit the markers by the time he reached the middle of the North East Lane as he had a shoulder problem that finally called a holt [sic] to the attempt.”

The most relevant part is that Mike, one of the most experienced current pilots, estimates the possible record time as 6 hours 20 minutes.

What I can say about Trent’s swim, is that he probably could have benefited from an earlier start. After all the discussion about optimum start time during the briefing, when Mike outlined the different start time options, the actual swim time was almost 6.45 a.m. when Mike had said the “on the edge” best start time was 6.30 a.m.

As tides go, Trent wasn’t on the lowest neap of the year. A lower neap would mean slightly less tidal current, though it’s doubtful this would translate to more than a couple a minutes. On the other side, as Mike points out, a fast enough swimmer willingly to risk the highest spring tide of the season could benefit from the stronger currents on the French side of the Strait.

Weather-wise Trent has quite calm day, but with a couple hours of increase Force Two chop. There is always a difference between a completely flat “glass” sea and a stronger tail-wind and surfing sea. I asked Trent which he preferred and he said he felt he was faster with a surfing sea. Which is better, a one-day-in-ten perfect glass or a wind that lines up behind the swimmer and shifts north-westerly. I feel the wind was not entirely as Mike said, it seemed South-westerly to me, and I noted the direction and speed specifically at about the fourth hour, when Mike notes that Trent was losing speed. During that hour he lost the wake regularly. That may have translated in the most accumulated loss.

Owen and I estimated Trent’s total feed time at 112 seconds. Stoychev’s was about 90 seconds. At those speeds every ten seconds lost doesn’t equate to 10 minutes swimming, but 20 seconds lost could very easily mean four or five minutes lost. And at the rate he was swimming, sacrificing two second for another feed in the last 40 minutes might have also been beneficial.

Owen points out privately to me, that Damian being in the water for more of the last hour, could also have had a significant impact. Not to mention the fact that, in open water terms Trent is still not at his peak,

In my non-expert view compared to Mike Oram, I’d estimated that Trent could go fifteen minutes faster.

Of course that doesn’t mean he will because that weather and tide combination is elusive for everyone. But I wouldn’t rule it out. I can’t quantify Mike’s assertion that the record could be improved by thirty minutes, but I can’t rule it out either.

And the Channel teaches people to be careful of using the word “impossible”.

Q & A with Trent Grimsey

A couple of weeks after his record-breaking English Channel swim, I put some questions to Trent, from myself and some of you on Twitter, and quite a lot from fellow Aussie English Channel and Sandycove swimmer Craig Morrison. Most the questions are a swimmer’s point of view.
I’ve been asked how much long I could make Trent’s story continue on the blog and the answer is this is the last one. For this year anyway..
In the meantime, Trent has been nominated for Male Swim of the Year on the forum. You need to be a member to vote. Membership is open marathon and aspiring marathon swimmers. On the forum he has also been nominated for the Barra Award for Overall Performance of the year.
And Trent has also been nominated for two World Open Water Swimming Awards, where nominations are open to the public, Man of the Year, and Performance of the Year.
Also I put together a short 6 minute video of Trent’s Channel swim.
Feeding, best feeding interval for long & short stuff?

In long races I normally feed every 15 minutes but with the Channel I knew every second would count so that’s why I decided to feed every 20 minutes!

Pre-race eating pattern, a week of pigging your self or always the same?

I always try to keep it the same although if it’s a race over 5 hours I really eat a lot of food the day before just for the extra fuel.

What do you eat before and after training, say morning session?

Before training a bowl of cereal, then after training I eat my big breakfast… 3 pieces of toast, baked beans and fruit.

How many calories do you consume daily, healthy or anything goes?

I try to eat as healthy as I can from Monday to Friday then on the weekends I eat whatever I want! I don’t count calories.

Land base training. How much how important, if you had to pick 3 exercises what would they be?

Three months ago I finished my personal training degree so this is something I’m really interested in. I do weights two times a week, I ride the exercise bike three times a week, I do a little bit of core everyday.

Stretching, is it crap or important?

I think stretching is very important. I try to stretch everyday!

What’s a typical workout when training for EC, as opposed to 10k?

The training is not too different, just a couple more aerobic sessions a week and a couple less speed sessions.

Any cross training, how much?

Exercise bike, weights, core

Typical interval work ie. 100×100, 10×1000 etc. how much rest between sets?

Most of my aerobic work is done on a 1.10 to 1.15 cycle.
This reminds me of something I forgot to put in the final section of the story of Trent’s Channel records, when we were returning. After Damián and Trent returned to the boat, Harley and Trent were discussing the end of the swim. Damián was able to say that Trent has been swimming at 1:11 to 1:11:5 per 100. For swimmers, two thing sleep out from that. the first is the speed that Trent was still swimming after crossing the Channel. The second is that Damián was able to so accurately identify swim speed to within half a second, from experience.
Anything scientific out of the normal, that elite swimmers like yourself do compared to the rest of us?
While swimming the Channel this year I had some duck tape on my swimming cap because I didn’t want it to fall off!
Were you scared or nervous steaming out to the beach?  
No I wasn’t nervous or scared, just excited. I knew I had done everything I could have possible done to have prepared myself for this so there was no reason to be nervous.
I was enormously impressed by your calm in the face of Mike Oram’s, um, unique way of dealing with swimmers, and became an 100% fan right there, no reservations. How much negativity do you have to deal with as a world-class swimmer?
There are a lot of athletes that like playing head games with their competitors in marathon swimming. I believe you need to be very mentally strong to deal with some of these games. You learn to just discard what you know is not true and don’t let it affect you!
I told Harley that I thought it was important that you say you’d booked the Channel three years ago, when Mike O (or most of us) wouldn’t have had a clue who you were. How and when were you infected by the Channel dream?
I must have been about 10 years old when I found out people could actually swim the English Channel. Ever since I found this out I have had a dream of being the fastest person to have ever swam it. I hate not being the fastest or best at something!
Photo courtesy of Owen O’Keefe

Has the enormity of what you’ve achieved started to sink in? The Channel is a huge deal. The Channel community says it changes you. Did you ever hear the Chad Hundeby English Channel story? Nearly 20 years ago, it was a different time. He’d been World Number 1 a while, but he said when people asked how his Channel was, and he said he hadn’t done it yet, the other swimmers would just nod and say nothing. He said he felt until he did the Channel he hadn’t really arrived. Like you he set the record on his first swim. 

Yes, I think the enormity of what I have done has only just now started to sink in. I’m so glad to be able to tell people I have swam the English Channel, I feel I can finally say I’m a real marathon swimmer now I’ve swam the Channel.
What does your training and racing year look like generally? Do you work it out with Harley?
For the rest of the year it will just be a big training block really. I have a few smaller races here and in New Zealand that I’ll be doing but that’s about it. I tell Harley what races I want to do and we work out together what the best plan will be to get there.
If this isn’t too difficult a question, what would say were the key components of your success? (excluding pilot)
The extra weight I put on, drinking all my feeds, and the encouragement I got the whole way from my crew.
How much stroke/technique/out of water work do you do? I know from talking to Harley you changed your diet, decreased running, to put on weight, he said it decreased your recovery time and illnesses. What are your thoughts on it?
I’m not a very strong swimming, just very rhythmic. This is why I do two weight sessions a week to get me stronger and that in turns helps with my stroke.
Yes, I believe having the extra weight on helped me recover faster from training and races. It also helped with recovering from sickness!
How do you plan and deal with all the travelling and living on two sides of the world?
It does get a little hard sometimes living in Australia because we are so far away and it’s so expensive to travel anywhere but in saying that it’s so fun travelling and racing on the circuit!
You and Harley seem like a really close team. How have you both previously dealt with the adversity of people not believing in you? I don’t think it’ll be a problem in the future.
I think the best way to deal with people not believing in you is to prove them wrong!
Everything I saw you do was 100% connected to getting you to France quicker. Swimming, feeding, technique, positive thoughts and encouragement. It was an awesome display of comprehensive scope. How did you learn to focus so much on the positive mental side ? Any tips there?
I believe the only way to get better at focusing and thinking positive during a race is to practice it as much as you can.
What next?
World Championships next year. I think I can win a gold medal there!
Can I crew next time? :-)
Definitely, you and Owen. I am going to book in again for 2014, around early September or late August. I believe I can take another 5 to 10 minutes off the record!
Finally Trent’s got some new t-shirts ..
Well folks, that last line isn’t a bluff, Trent is actually in the planning process for 2014, hopefully Owen and I will be there again, and therefore so will you be, if last that long.

Have you skin in the game? Wave swimming in English Channel swims

There has been some discussion, questions and indeed argument arising from Trent Grimsey’s record-breaking English Channel swim, within the marathon swimming community. This centres around whether Trent swimming on or behind Gallivant’s bow wave makes it an assisted swim. Just in case you don’t know what I’m speaking about, riding a bow wave is where a swimmer of sufficient speed and ability can swim in the wave coming off the bow at the front of the boat to gain speed.

From that simple definition, it is of course an assisted swim. But is it really that simple? No. And I’m going to explain why.

Let me first say, because I was there, I almost feel like I’m cast as one of the chief defenders of bow-wave swimming, or whatever we’ll call it, though before Trent’s swim, I’d never heard nor been party to a discussion on the subject. In fact I’d never thought of nor heard the subject raised. So it’s worthwhile trying to look at this subject more deeply.


People should first consider that there’s not much point getting up out the pitchforks after the fact, or without an understanding of what happened. There’s a universal rule in law and sport: You operate within the law or rule in effect NOW. For example, if you cut down your neighbour’s overhanging tree ten years ago and there was no law against it, but then a new law was brought in five years ago, you can’t be retroactively punished. The same for any sports rule. Trent operated within Channel rules.

The Pilot

Trent’s record Channel swim was an extraordinary experience to be part of, and Owen and I were lucky to be there. And as I have said before, recognising that luck, I wanted to share it with the rest of the marathon swimming world, and just as importantly, for any of you who are simply interested. So much of our sport happens by necessity with only a few direct observers that most great swims pass instantly into mythology. We are the first generation of marathon swimmers, regardless of our own ages, who can use the internet to share information and connect with other, and make our stories public and our sport better understood.

When Owen and I sat in on Trent and team’s briefing with Mike Oram, Mike’s statement that riding the bow wave as essential to reaching the record, let alone breaking it, was new to me. I’d never considered it. I checked with Owen and he’d felt the same.

Let me clear up a serious misconception here. Some people seem to think Trent showed up at Dover, the FINA Number 1, professional swimmer, ready to bend all rules and slots to his desires and surf that bow-wave and that somehow things were different for him. But that’s just not true. Trent is a respectful, calm and pleasant young man without a huge ego. He booked his slot three years ago, like any regular Channel swimmer, and had, like many, dreamed of the Channel since he was young.

And he’d never heard of nor swum a bow-wave either.

His plan was to be three to five metres (his words, on video) off the bow. As about 12 people to whom I shared the briefing video would agree, the bow wave was explained to Trent, and us … by pilot Mike Oram.

Trent followed one of the cardinal rules of Channel swimming…he did what his pilot told him.

My first contention therefore, is that the concern is arising now, only because for the first time, many swimmers are now aware of this possibility, and that’s precisely because of my detailed posts on Trent. You’ve seen it with your own eyes from my videos and report, and it’s making you think. People need to think. And then think more about their initial reaction. Why?

Is this an assisted swim? I am not trying to split hairs, my record on this blog and elsewhere like the forum, if that I’ll happily support anything I understand. I have no problem with other assisted swims, my problem has been where rules are deliberately flouted or where people mislead others about their intentions or the nature of their swims, or mislead people into believing they are undertaking a marathon swim, but in practice, they aren’t.

No-one should compare Trent Grimsey to people who have misled others about their swims. No-one should compare his swim to being slip-streamed behind a boat, or equate it to wearing a wetsuit or being towed in a shark-cage.

The Community

But Donal, you say, you are obfuscating. There is the letter of the rule and the spirit of the rule.

I accept that. But I still say Trent’s swim is valid and legitimate and within the spirit. Before I go further with this, the question of legitimacy of his swim has only been raised by a few marathon swimmers. As they are entitled to so do. What is important is that the swim is recognised by the validating organisation. It has been. Trent Grimsey is the English Channel record holder. If you don’t accept this, you fail to accept basic precepts of our sport, those of observation and validation.

This year has seen some behind-the-scenes discussion of asking whether it is possible to reach a rapprochement of marathon swimming rules across the various worldwide associations. The discussions haven’t really led anywhere that I’m aware of, and I don’t for now expect that to change. But they were another part of the genesis of the forum. This means that each association generally agrees that other associations have the right to their own rules, their own wrinkles of marathon swimming, and we’ve discussed those previously … NYCSwim’s MIMS in-water start and lightning evacuation clause and Cook Strait’s Swimming Association’s shark evacuation procedure as the two best known examples. The only real exception continues to be the CSA who refuse to recognise any CS&PF Channel swims. So like many CS&PF swimmers, I don’t take well to criticism from the CSA, though I have many friends who are CSA soloists. But the day after Trent’s swim a CSA swimmer in Dover described the CS&PF as the Dark Side, and not as a joke.

Each organisation determines its own rules (and only the CSA feels free to judge others). So as a proud (no-longer-paying) CS&PF swimmer, I don’t see how non-CS&PF or non-Channel swimmers can judge Trent. Lest this be seen as defensive, when I have commented on other swims or swimmers breaking rules, it’s where we were misled into believing which rules were being used.

Sciencey stuff

Let’s talk about waves themselves, because it feeds into answering that spirit of the rules question. This post took, as you can imagine, some time to write, as I had a day-long opportunity to write and this is the fourth revisions as I read more of the science, which was far from clear.

There are really two types of waves generated by a boat relevant to our discussion, which we’ll call bow waves and displacement waves.

A bow wave is generated by a boat and different aspects influence it:

  • Bow-shape
  • Boat speed
  • Hull/keel shape (depth and beam)
  • Weather and water conditions

A wide bow and hull will throw a bigger bow wave. A narrow hull or shallow keel throw a lesser wave. A boat throws less bow waves when going slower. A bigger bow wave will be generated in flatter water with less chop to impede it. (But choppy water can lead to random waves and spurts being thrown off the boat also, as anyone who spent time on small boats can tell you).

What do you think of a bow-wave as? Is it this doodle on the right?

That’s a reasonable assumption. And you imagine Trent body-surfing and swimming that wave. But it’s not correct.

A bow-wave from our point of view is actually more complex. On one hand there is a shock wave that disperses through the water from the forward, (bow), part of the water, dictated as I said above by speed, bow shape and width . Hulls are narrowed and elongated to reduce this shock wave. Ships don’t have square bows (except some very slow barges optimised for packing). Bow-waves slow boats down. You’ve all seen cargo ships with a torpedo-like bulbous protrusion at the front, which are actually designed to break the water in front of the bow, reduce the bow wave, and therefore increase speed and efficiency. On the other hand the entire boat displaces a volume of water behind the bow wave, which is pulled forward, the displacement wave.

Many Channel swimmers have experienced the bow wave off one of the big cargo ships. (I’ve never heard anyone complain about the effects those, except obviously the sudden swamping and disruption. Does anyone want to ask if big ships give a speed-boost to a swimmer, in light of this discussion?)

We don’t swim in the slipstream behind any boat in Channel swimming, because we can quantify it as an artificial help, regardless of boat size, speed or shape. Trent, as you can seen in the video, was swimming along the side, right outside Mike’s pilot door, about one metres out. Did he go up toward the front of the boat? Yes, mostly during the difficult fifth hour. During that fifth hour he also slipped toward the back of the boat more. Because of the difficulty in staying aligned. A difficulty that every Channel swimmer I know has experienced, as the boat adjusts speed, slips in and out of gear, and tries to match the generally low speeds of swimmers. Because Trent can swim fast enough, the boat could mostly stay in gear. For many swimmers, boats often have to do the opposite, and throw out drag-chutes, to slow them down sufficiently to stay with the swimmer without straining the engine by constant low speed.

Hulls displace water all along their length in what’s called the boundary layer starting from In Front Of the bow. Trent was swimming in the boundary layer (of laminar and turbulent flow) caused by the drag of the interface of the water and the hull.  Laminar flow operates in very thin layers (millimetres) of different speeds very close to the hull (less than probably 30 centimetres maximum and is not relevant).

As long as the boat is moving steadily forward, there is that displacement flow or displacement wave. Any displacement flow Trent experienced was higher because Trent can swim faster. Because Trent can swim faster, the boat can move faster. He brought that advantage with him to the Channel because of talent and training and his own speed! Any advantage he gained was by virtue of the fact that he is already so fast.

And that’s if there was any advantage. With all this talk, I’d assumed there was some. But there might not be at all…

The whole process is non-linear and chaotic, meaning tiny changes in initial state lead to huge non-predictable changes in effect. Turbulence increases in a boundary layer to balance the equation of the water that is being forward. (The overall system must balance, where water is pulled forward water must flow back). Both flows exist congruent to each other and in an ill-defined region. In fact, the slower the boat the further out the boundary layer of turbulent flow begins.

But more importantly as I said initially, a slower moving boat with a deeper hull, and wider beam, has proportionally greater bow and displacement waves.

The greatest  speed is where the bow-wave flows off the maximum curvature of the hull, from the bow to the sides. The maximum area of speed is the leading edge of the wave. The trailing end of the wave is characterised by turbulent flow, some of which spirals in opposing directions.

I’d like to show two of the most compelling pieces of evidence that where Trent was swimming was far from the most beneficial, and in fact may even have been counter-productive.

A short video that illustrates the point:

Yes, dolphins. Engineered by evolution to maximise efficiency and speed versus power in water.

And another different case:

Yes, surfing. This time a longboard surfer on a small wave, so you are not confusing my point because I used a big wave.

What do they have in common that illustrates the Trent case so perfectly?

They are both IN FRONT OF THE WAVE, where the speed is, as surfers say, where the water is green. Humans as surfers think consciously about this, dolphins don’t, but have been selected to do so.  The end result is the same.

The displacement of a boat pushes water forward in front of the bow. Speed is attained on the leading edge. As any surfer will tell you, the turbulence behind the face (front) of a wave is chaotic and the difference between being pushing forward and sitting in place is a state change line along the top of the wave. Pass that line even on a big wave, and you are not getting pushed forward.

Trent was behind the bow wave and only experiencing turbulent flow from the trailing edge. At the only times he inadvertently went past the forward section of bow, which happened maybe twice, and for seconds only, it was a mistake and he returned to his previous position. Most of us have inadvertently swum off the bow of a boat.

Our apparent “common-sense”, the experience of pilots, and our understanding of what is happening, what we all took for granted, as with so much of science, may in fact not be correct.

Everyone decrying his advantage? Is wrong. As were we in misunderstanding it.

Our terminology has been wrong: We need to differentiate between the bow wave and the displacement wave. Trent was in the displacement wave, as the pictures and video show.


Let’s look at a picture of two Channel boats. First we have CS&PF pilot Mike Oram’s Gallivant.

Then CSA pilot Reg Brickell’s Viking Princess. Gallivant is an ex-pleasure cruiser with a shallow steel hull. I don’t know exactly what she displaces but it can’t be more than 20 tons, the general specifications and descriptions for the entire CS&PF fleet can be found here. I wrote 15 tons first but I’m adding another 25% to be extra conservative, something of which I’m not often accused. :-)

Viking Princess is a steel trawler. She is the biggest boat in the Channel swimming fleet, twice the weight at least of anything else. She is 50 tons with a concrete-weighted deep rounded hull and designed to hold lots of densely packed fish in rough seas, so she has to be bottom-heavy, deep and with a wide beam to be stable (and stable is relative term, as she is the rockiest boat I’ve ever been on). She is 5 metres broad whereas Gallivant is 3.5 metres.


What the hell are you on about Donal?

Hang on, I’m getting there.

Given its shape, depth, beam and displacement, the English Channel fleet boat that incontrovertibly provides both the biggest bow-wave and the biggest displacement wave, regardless of conditions or swimmer or speed, is the CSA’s Viking Princess.

On two consecutive days, in different conditions with different swimmers, I was on both these boats. The day before Trent’s swim Owen, Jim Boucher and I crewed for Alan and we could easily see, in the prevailing Force Two Southerlies and south-westerlies, the shelter that Alan could avail of on Viking Princess’s leeward port side.

Since Alan’s swim, I’ve been incontrovertible that Viking Princess is the best boat in the combined Channel fleet to swim off (though not for crew).

These are different advantages provided by boats. These advantages have been provided by boats since Channel swimming started.

Alan availed of shelter during his Channel swim. So did I. With the wind hitting rising past Force Three, and reaching Force Five, I was also on the port side of Seafarer II, a small but high-sided ex-pleasure cruiser. Wind shelter isn’t complete, anymore than displacement wave assistance is complete.

I’ve stood on Shakespeare and Samphire Hoe on different years and different tides, and seen different swimmers go out with different pilots, and the one thing almost all had in common in choppy conditions,  was they all swam to the port side to avail of wind shelter from the south-westerly prevailing wind blowing on the starboard side.

One last area before I start pulling these threads together.

Amongst the defining aspects of English Channel swimming are the traffic and lack of kayak support. One is a consequence of the other. It’s just too dangerous to put kayaks out there in such rough changeable water with high traffic. This means all swimmers must swim by the boat. Swimmers have tragically been lost in the Channel after being separated from the pilot-boat.  Some like to swim away from the boat, some closer in. Some people changes sides regardless of wind, due to references or breathing requirements. These all add to the challenges. And the constraints.

Reductio ad absurdum

Can you eliminate the possibility of wave assistance?  Of course you can. Given the safety constraints of the English Channel, kayaks will remain out of the question, as will swimming away from the boat. The only way therefore will be to scrap the existing fleet and require that the new fleet be of a single standard hull design, designed with a team of marine engineers and hydro-dynamacists to reduce displacement flow off the port side, where we’ll have to insist all swimmers take up position.

Of course all swimmers will have to able to breathe to the right. I have no idea how to stop swimmers getting the benefit of a wind break, I look forward to your suggestions. maybe we can make them swim in front of the boat. Of course now that we know that’s actually the place where you’d actually get bow wave assistance…

Maybe some type of open-rigged catamaran, where the foils are open to the wind, and the swimmer is placed in the centre under the raised hull, and the foils are far enough apart to counter any flow? Or maybe a hull design where the maximum hull curvature would be at the stern, like a reversed teardrop, opposite to the way boats are normally designed. Of course, cat-s and tri-marans are less stable in rough water and I haven’t seen that many backwards-designed boat…

Or move Channel swimming from the current situation to similar to Gibraltar with a pilot-boat and punt where the swimmer swims off the punt. Of course, then you have safety issues again…

If it’s not the English Channel, Cook, Tsugaru, North or any other location where only pilot boats are used, then simply use kayaks or a rig as the primary swim support craft. Should the kayaker need to be evacuated because of conditions and swimmers need to move to main boat, then the swim is called off.

A simpler suggestion would be to eliminate Channel swimming in greater than Force Two winds. Either way of course, we’ll have to tear up the records and start again. Who will the first Channel Swimmer? It’ll be exciting, just like the 1870s, the whole world wondering if anyone will ever swim the Channel.

Yes, I’ve engaged in reductio ad absurdum, extrapolating a specious argument to display its  flaws.


Part of the problem is our imprecise terminology, like I used in the opening paragraph, but deliberately this time, and some people leaping to condemnation. The language carries meaning that may not at all relate to the reality. “Riding the bow wave“. I’ve said it, and not questioned it closely myself previously. I shall not be using it again, because it is incorrect. Mike Oram was incorrect, those seeking to deny Trent because of it are incorrect.

But this article has set out to do investigate those misconceptions and the evidence is very, very strong.

Every swimmer who has ever swum the English Channel, every single one, has been assisted. They may or may not have been assisted by availing of wind shelter behind the boat. But without a doubt, in the absence of kayak support: Every. Single. Swimmer. Has been affected by flow, aka that displacement wave, that suddenly is of concern now, its strength related to many factors including the swimmer’s speed, and the hull characteristics.

What I and they can’t identify, is to what extent if at all assisting flow exists for swimmers. If they stayed ten metres off on the windward side, even so, every time they came near the boat they entered that wave. If the day was a once-a-year, flat-calm glass sea and they stayed 20 metres off, every time they came in to feed, they entered that wave. Every regular swimmer who found themselves at some point going from stern to aft alongside the boat, was in a displacement wave. Any swimmer who swam beyond their boat, a couple of metres off, entered that wave and stayed in it for a long time.

I swam that wave, I got the wind-protection assistance. Find me a Channel swimmer who says they did not gain assistance from their pilot-boat, and I will show you someone who doesn’t understand what happened during their swim.

Any assistance is defined and accepted within the rules of English Channel swimming. It has not changed. To assert Trent did something new or somehow violated the spirit of the rules, is to misunderstand those rules, to misunderstand what Channel Swimmers do and to deny we all do the same by the same methods. And I have no choice but to ask if there is an ulterior motive in some of the questions.

The very spirit of Channel swimming is in teamwork. A swimmer, a pilot, a boat. And in the observation and validation of those swims. Trent Grimsey swam a 100% legal swim, and was validated by the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation and most importantly did nothing that others haven’t done, including some of those now, unjustifiably, critical. He is the English Channel world record holder, like the swimmers before him. There is not even a hint of implication that his swim will be challenged. Because there’s nothing to base a challenge on.

If you swim Catalina or Manhattan or elsewhere where you are supported by a kayak and the traffic is lower and the conditions are not as bad, you can define your different rules.

I’m not going to run a poll on this. I’ve spent quite some time researching and writing this, including talking to a fluids physicist. A handful of people even saw the previous third draft of this article, and can therefore vouch for significant changes from that to this as the understanding evolved.

If you are a marathon swimmer you can have your own opinion and we can disagree.

But you’ll now need to prove to me that Trent or anyone else got undue assistance that every other Channel swimmer did not have. And if you are a CSA swimmer condemning Trent, you better explain how you can judge when a boat in your fleet generates the greatest displacement wave.

If you are not a marathon swimmer but have an opinion, you are, as we say in Ireland, a hurler-on-the-ditch, an expert without having much expertise. As the good people in America say, you must have some skin in the game. I’ve put my skin (literally) in there, so has Trent. And so has every English Channel swimmer.


Thanks to the people who reviewed earlier drafts of this, Owen O’Keefe, Zoe Sadler, Nick Adams and Niek Kloots. Thanks most especially to my friend Justin, the sailing physicist, who helped me cut through some of the dead-end research areas I was lost in (I spent a lot of unnecessary time on laminar flow!) and clarifying the issue and explanations.


Fair winds, calm seas.

Related links:

The physics behind dolphin bow-wave swimming.

Dover Light & Varne cliffs

Trent Grimsey’s World Record English Channel – Returning to Dover

Narrative imperative required that I leave out some details from after Trent finished his swim.

Picture taken by Mike Oram as Trent boarded Gallivant

When Trent swam back to the boat with Damián, he was of course tired, like all Channel swimmers, but not unusually so. He is a professional athlete after all. He also wasn’t however particularly bloated. Swimmer’s bloat, Third Spacing of Fluids, wasn’t really noticeable as he hadn’t been in the water long enough.

The afternoon was warm and the excitement was high. After he boarded, and as I later Tweeted, I welcomed him to the club. Damián repeatedly insisted that Trent was now a sex machine!

Sex Machine – Photo courtesy of Owen O’Keefe

Gallivant had an engine problem and the return to Dover was slower than normal. The trip back to Dover was filled with chat and a few brief interludes of seasickness for Trent. Like most swimmers, taking in lots of liquid carbs leaves the body with a liquid excess. In fairness, Trent was feeling seasick more than he was actually physically sick. Much fun was had between the three core team members of Harley, Trent and Damián.  It was a glorious afternoon, blue sky, no sign of the haze or fog on the return that had followed us toward France earlier.

“My” motto, mostly worn off

On the way back, Trent remarked how he’d been inspired the previous day by something on one of my t-shirts. I’d had a polo shirt printed with and a motto on the breast. Cafe Press had made a mess of it, and I only use it for post-swim, not worrying about getting lanolin or grease on it. The motto? “Nothing great is easy“. Trent thought that aphorism was my invention, not knowing it is the motto of all Channel swimmers since the Captain! It was what he’d written on his before the swim, that I hadn’t wanted to ask about.

There was of course discussion of the swim and Trent read through my notes that I’d taken. Harley asked Trent how he’d liked the caffeine blast…then told Trent he hadn’t given him any caffeine.

Discussion then and subsequently has also turned to Trent’s next challenges, Rio’s King and Queen of the Sea before year, but in Channel terms, what next? Would Trent Solo again? Will Petar Stoychev return for another attempt? What about the mouth-watering prospect of a Channel race between the two? Will Trent try the two-way English Channel record? Public answers to these will have to await Trent and Harley’s decisions.

Brian, the Official CS&PF Observer, only his third trip out, went through the final details for the report.

As we arrived back at Dover harbour, a slight fog was developing under the Varne cliffs, Samphire Hoe and Folkestone hazy behind the veil.

Trent was met by a journalist and did a quick interview while Owen & I headed for Varne.

Much celebrating was done when the rest arrived in Varne Ridge, where David had put a temporary sign with Trent’s time in pride of place, along with the usual Varne Ridge touches of raising the Australian flag, and putting a congratulations banner on the mobile home. It was funny to see Trent in Varne just after returning surrounded by a large group of Malaysian relayers, whom all week had displayed no interest, suddenly looking for advice about their relay teams, feeding, cold, etc.

From left: Donal, Harley, Trent, Evelyn, Owen, Damian, David

The following evening, with The White Horse pub closed since the previous week and its future unknown or at best uncertain, we (Trent’s crew and Alan’s crew) went for dinner in the Royal Oak , where Trent modestly signed one of the Royal Oak’s Channel boards.

Photo courtesy of Owen O’Keefe

Finally, it’s interesting to see the superposition of Trent’s and Petar Stoychev’s charts. Trent’s track is the line with the diamond waypoint markers.

In a post coming up, we’ll ask what’s the best possible English Channel time.

Trent with 10 minutes to go, everything in his body protesting

Trent Grimsey’s English Channel World Record – Part 6 – Nothing Great Is Easy

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5.

Some messages to Trent involved an ongoing in-joke with Trent’s crew which I can’t repeat, but I can tell you they involved direct messages from a deity.

Trent was hammering, burning. His kick was fully switched on, his stroke was up and still increasing and he’d probably briefly seen France for a second. We were lined up still toward Wissant, the long beach and village north of the Cap but still moving sideways also. His next feed was scheduled for five minutes later.

He refused the next feed. No time was lost, a dice was thrown, the fastest engines burn the most fuel, the race for the record now also a race to the end, a race to beat burnout.

In the seventh hour, with 6 hours and 10 minutes elapsed, Harley gave the next important message;

2.7 k in 45 minutes required.

Mike said that 6 minutes inside the record was possible if Trent was to keep up the speed. Keeping speed is really difficult at this stage, there is so much that can interfere with it; the currents, any change in water pattern or breeze, the late trajectory into the Cap, cramp, stroke rate or efficiency deterioration … or suddenly running out of energy because you’ve missed your last two feeds.

Again, this looks easy enough in normal circumstances. These weren’t normal circumstances, there is no normal in the Channel.

I would shout “go” in time with Trent’s breathing for a minute, or two or three, until my voice would break and only a croak would issue. I would stop for a minute, maybe do a very irregular Tweet update, and then go back to shouting.

At this stage Damián started preparing to go in, and took most of the remaining feed mix, as he’d also eaten very little during the swim. Since he wasn’t an official swimmer he wore the partial wetsuit common in many FINA events.

He entered the water, diving from the port side where he’d been stationed out and behind Trent, surfacing on Trent’s left side, the side that Trent never looks to, an item of concern for Damián.

The CS&PF rules for support swimmers, and Mike Oram had snapped at Trent earlier in the week that Damián was a support swimmer, not a “pace swimmer”, specify the times and intervals which the support swimmer(s) can be in the water, but since Damián had not previously been in the water with Trent, there was no problem with him going in now. The maximum he could stay in was 1 hour, but the swim was not expected to take that long. Most importantly he could not draft Trent, nor touch him before the end, including not being allowed to help Trent exit the water on the dangerous rocks around the Cap.

Damián could swim away from Trent, and help Trent keep pace just by his presence and being able to more easily feel for pace being fresh.

Five minutes after Damián entered, a yacht appeared from port heading straight for Gallivant and not bearing off. I asked Harley to ask Mike in case he or James didn’t see it, being intent on the closing stages of the swim, (unlikely as that was). Sail has right-of-way over power according to rules of the sea, and I worried that a sailor used to this would not bear off. But the 32 footer was under power, using the iron sail. Mike called on VHF, and they eventually bore off, taking away the very late worry of a time-consuming diversion.

Not long after Damián entered the water, another message to Trent from Mike via Harley:

1500 metres in 30 minutes. The Cap was right in front of us now.

Even I can do that easily. I know better though than to think that’s relevant. Trent’s stroke rate had reached 82 strokes per minute. He was “in a world of pain” in his own words. Heart hammering, stroke suffering, efficiency had deteriorating with each increase of those strokes. Every muscle screaming for oxygen and energy at best, to stop, to rest, to put an end to the torture at worst. Trent didn’t know, we didn’t know if the record was secure. On Twitter I said the Channel record was on a knife-edge, no time to think of anything except a cliché.

At 13:30 a message told Trent to swim 500 metres in 10 minutes. The unflappable Harley was even getting agitated, MOVE UR ARSE on the message board.

The water around the Cap was full of boats, at first we though it was other pilot boats who might have waited to see this extraordinary spectacle to its denouement, but it was fishing boats and just one other pilot-boat, Lance Oram, Mike’s son on Sea Satin with South African Miles Wilson after his successful 13 hours and eleven minutes Solo.

With 10 minutes to swim, you can see the strain in Trent’s face.

Sea Satin steamed starboard of us, and swung around to escort Trent and Damián on the other side. I Tweeted “7 minutes”, unable to tear myself away for more time from this extraordinary spectacle.

We passed fishing boats, small and medium, the occupants bemused by all the shouting, some displaying a typically Gallic indifference.

As we closed on the Cap, we could see a large crowd on the viewpoint (left of the lighthouse).

Insert an Irishman giving directions joke here

We steamed over the rocks in front of the Cap only visible at low tide. Individual rocks were visible on the Cap. The six minutes advantage Trent had, had evaporated in the final stretch.

Harley, Owen and I were apoplectic. Harley gave Trent some final motivation, holding out the Australian flag, Owen shouting go, go, I had descended into a non-verbal hooting shriek.

The steel bow scraped reef and Mike put Gallivant into neutral. Trent and Damián swum away, ahead of us. Toward the Cap.

They swam past the first above-water reefs, inshore.

I switched the camera to video, not having a lens large enough to clearly resolve the swimmers.

At 13:38 Trent and Damián reached the rocks on the north-east side of the Cap. Trent stumbled upwards clear of  the water almost immediately, raised his arms, and Gallivant‘s sirens whooped. The swim was over, a new English Channel record had been set. My notebook says “UNBELIEVABLE”.

The new English Channel Solo record is 6 hours and 55 minutes.

It is 2 minutes and 50 seconds faster than the previous record.

Trent Grimsey is the new English Channel Record Holder.

He is not done yet.

Get your arse in gear 6h5m.resized

Trent Grimsey’s English Channel World Record – Part 5 – “You have burned so very brightly”

Part 1.  Part 2.  Part 3.  Part 4.

France is barely visible in the distance.

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.

Take a double feed

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.

The Cap is just left of image centre, one can just barely make out the lighthouse.

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.

Mike Oran giving his unique coaching input

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!

Trent at 5 hours and 30 minutes

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.

At about five hours forty minutes, Harley passed a message to Trent: You must swim 4.4 kilometres in under 1Hr10mins for record.

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.

Last feed

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.

French Coast Guard Cutter

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.

Swimming into the 5th hour.resized

Trent Grimsey’s English Channel World Record – Part 4 – “Now’s the hard bit”

Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

Message to Trent

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.

Swimming through the NE lane. I was literally hanging off the back of Gallivant to take this

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.

Message from Trent’s mother

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.

At four hours thirty minutes, Mike Oram gave a message directly to Trent on the whiteboard:

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“.

Out of the fog, yachts in French water

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.

3 hours, 7 mins ahead.resized

Trent Grimsey’s English Channel World Record – Part 3 – Dolphin Dreams

Part 1.

Part 2.

Leaving Shakespeare Beach, Trent swam straight for the previously discussed port side of Gallivant.

Is this time to talk about port and starboard? These are not useless terms, useful only to professional sailors. Port and starboard are highly useful and accurate terms intended to avoid confusion at sea. Confusion in dangerous circumstances can mean injury or death. It’s always a surprise how many people go out on boats on long and potentially dangerous pursuits without understanding this fundamental: Port is always the left hand side as seen when looking forward to the bow from the rear of the craft.  Therefore, if you are on the front of a boat, looking back to the rear, port is your right-hand side. They are used because two people facing opposite directions can confuse each other using left and right, confusion means delay, and delay on a boat can mean danger. Using port and starboard means you don’t have to waste time on that useless “do you mean my left or your left”  questions. Starboard therefore is the right-hand side of the boat. If you are ever going to go out on a boat you should know this. If you don’t know it, learn it now. Rewire yourself so that when you even think about a boat, you think of port and starboard, not left and right. Digression over, back to Trent, swimming.

The air was still crisp and cool and the sky cloudless as Trent quickly reached the side of the boat, and he moved alongside to take up position one metre off the gunwale, right on the bow wave. Humans mythologise some creatures, the charismatic mega-fauna, horses, dogs and dolphins amongst them. We imagine some relationship, some understanding other than exists in reality. For thousands of years, cetaceans have loomed large in our imagination, eidolons of ultimate freedom, we see that mouth shape, anthropomorphise it into a smile, and project an understanding. Ask people what animal they’d like to be and more would probably reply dolphin than almost any other fauna. We see dolphins and porpoises skimming the bow waves of boats and project ourselves into them. Watching Trent swim onto the bow wave was to see that dolphin dream perfectly illuminated by one of the few humans capable of fully expressing it, like that hybrid we’ve all imagined, somewhere, sometime when we’ve moved through the water.

At a steady rate Gallivant steamed away from the beach, Trent perfectly situated in the slipstream, the rising easterly sun forward over his left shoulder. Damián was situated just beside the port cabin door at the lowest part of the gunwale, with Harley just forward him. Apart from occasional and brief visits aft, they were to remain there for the rest of the swim, working hard, never leaving Trent, never giving less than he gave, just in a different way, a team effort. Owen was forward of Harley, I was aft of Damián at the stern of the boat on the high crew deck, with Owen and I moving forward and aft more, giving messages and information, taking pictures and doing some fetching and carrying.

Only five minutes had passed, Trent had moved hundred of metres off the beach, when Damián wrote his first message “excellent surfing” to Trent on the small whiteboard. For the entirety of the swim Damián and Harley were almost never to leave Trent more than ten minutes without a message on the whiteboard, and rarely left him that long.

Channel Soloists, I have to tell you this: Trent passed the imaginary line delineating the end of the Dover Harbour Wall in just under ten minutes. Mike Oram had told Trent during the briefing that he would have to hold 4.9 kilometres per hour, to equal the existing record.

For most of us that portion of the swim takes twenty to twenty-five minutes, for slower swimmers it takes thirty minutes. For one poor unfortunate this year, they hadn’t passed the harbour after two hours and the Coast Guard called off the swim because they were a hazard.

Behind us the White Cliff’s high albedo reflected the early morning sunlight, westward was Samphire Hoe, the spoil of the Channel Tunnel turned into a coastal park, with Folkestone clear beyond Samphire Hoe in the morning light before any daytime haze descended. The water was ripplely under a gentle Force One breeze, technically described as “light air”, almost perfect, 95 out of a scale of 100. Trent had his first feed at twenty minutes after the start. It literally happened so quickly that I didn’t photograph it. Afterwards Mike Oram told Damián to pass a message to Trent that he make sure to take all his feed.

On the cabin roof beside him, Damián has Trent’s short handwritten list of positive affirmations to be used during the swim, a fascinating glimpse into the mind and operation of what a world champion uses as motivation.

Too Strong


Only worry about the things you can control



The sun was now well clear of the horizon. Only at dawn and sunset at sea and in mountains can one get a clear sense of quickly it scribes its arc across the arch of heaven, moving quickly from the watery gold and red of dawn, where one can still look at it, as it is dimmed by the denser atmosphere, before it quickly becomes the white-gold lifegiver.

For the rest on the first hour, apart from the feeds, there was bit of to-ing and fro-ing. Harley was back checking gear and moving more supplies forward, Owen was Tweeting off Trent’s account on a small notebook and I was just taking pictures, watching, and thinking this would be a good day. Trent’s stroke rate, according to my notes, was 64 at the start (32 cycles coaches use as compared to individual arm movements as most open water swimmers tend to use). I had a question for Harley in the first hour, that I hadn’t wanted to ask earlier in case it seemed negative. “What will you do if he slips behind the target and won’t make the record?”. “We’ll keep going”, said Harley, “and treat it as a training swim. We’re here for the record, if we don’t get it today we’ll be back for it”. I thought this was a telling statement, other record attempts have stopped after the target moved beyond reach.

At the one hour feed Trent was three minutes ahead of Stoychev.

Trent’s feeds were taking from two to six seconds. In Channel swimming, fifteen seconds is a fast feed. Fast feeds are essential, and probably the area of greatest errors with Channels swimmers. The day previously Jim Boucher, third crew member for Alan Clack’s solo, himself a two-time Soloist, had complimented Alan and crew on his quick fifteen-second feeds.

Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I’d become known as this.

With ships looming closer in front, at around the one hour mark Damián passed a message to Trent that the SW Shipping lane was only ten minutes ahead. It was actually about twenty minutes but the point was more to give Trent his progress to focus on.

Trent had travelled six and half kilometres in the first hour. Six. Point Five. Kilometres.

By one hour and thirty Trent’s stroke rate had dipped or settled every so slightly to 62, the breeze had increased slightly to Force Two, described as “Light Breeze”. Passenger ferries were close on the port side, only one kilometre away. On the afterdeck Owen and I were checking the Sandycove SPOT tracker, which we’d brought and started also, it’s easier to follow than Mike Oram’s Gallivant, because there aren’t multiple pages loaded. We also then loaded the new CS&PF swim tracking page which has the Shipping lanes, buoys and lightships and the Separation Zone indicated.

At one hour and forty-seven minutes elapsed, by now well into the South West Shipping Lane, ships passing south behind us now, Mike conveyed the information that Trent was five minutes ahead of Petar Stoychev.

The morning was stunning, golden light on turquoise water, diamonds scattered across the Channel. It had warmed up, the crew had shed jackets and tops.

Just before the two-hour mark, Harley decided to switch Trent to feeding every fifteen minutes instead of twenty. Trent’s feeds, which he’d pre-mixed himself, were a mix of Gatorade, gel and water. No warm water was added, though sitting in the sun the feed bottled warmed up quickly. Afterwards Trent told me he’d mixed enough for eight hours. Channel swimmers will get a giggle from that, the previous day Owen and I had mixed about twenty hours of feeds for Alan, because you never know…

A smiling, swimming Trent

In the first couple of hours particularly as I was watching and photographing Trent, what struck me, looking at the world’s number one up close, was how every movement was both economical and propelling him forward. Nothing in his stroke was impeding his progress, no minor stroke problems holding him back like the rest of us, every action was propelling him forward, his stroke long and graceful yet not overly the front quadrant, his kick variable as needed to adjust his position relative to or in the bow wave. It was a display of pure grace, Trent, as he says himself, is not a power/strength swimmer but one who moves based on stroke efficiency.

By the end of the second hour, Trent charging onwards, we passed the Varne lightship about 1500 metres off the starboard side, a sight usually only seen by swimmers returning on the boat, as the  swimmer’s usual path goes initially more north-east toward Calais.

How am I remembering this? I was taking brief notes, just for my own entertainment, occasional words spoken, my weather and water observations and the times of the various photographs, not at that stage thinking of how I could might use them. I had tried to take notes the previous day on Alan’s Solo, but the conditions on the boat were too rough to be able to so do. At two hours and thirty-five minutes, Trent was still seven minutes ahead. At two hours forty-eight Trent requested his feeds be changed to every seventeen and a half minutes. Almost immediately, Trent reported he was peeing too much. I was aft and went forward around the starboard side to call across to Harley that this was good thing, not a negative, when Mike Oram conveyed the same information and Trent was assured as such by Damián.

I mentioned Trent talking, and as Lisa Cummins and many of the Sandycove swimmers say, “shut up and swim“. How was Trent conveying so much information without losing time and distance? His control was such that on each stroke he could comfortably say a word with each breath on his right-hand side:

Change. Stroke. My. Stroke. Feeds. Stroke. To. Stroke. Every. Stroke. Seven. Stroke. Teen. Stroke. And. Stroke. Half. Stroke. Minutes. Stroke.

No break in stroke, no time lost.

At three hours we were well into the Separation Zone between the Shipping Lanes. I’d told Trent he’d know he was in the Zone because on a calm day like this was, the seaweed and debris would increase and he might start to see jellyfish. By this stage, the light was changing, becoming flat and grey, the haze that had gradually built unnoticed behind us was deepening. I told Harley to look astern of us, there was fog developing, invisible to Trent and those following online. This year’s swims that were abandoned just shy of France fresh in my mind, I started to worry. Ahead of us France wasn’t visible, usually a good sign, but England was completely veiled, north and south the world has disappeared, sound was flattening out, the breeze increased again, still Force Two but rising, some chop developed on the starboard side, but Trent was protected by Gallivant‘s shelter.

After three hours Trent reports he is “feeling flat”. And there was still a long way to go.

On to Part Four.

Trent Grimsey’s English Channel World Record – Part 2 – Record Day dawns

Part 1

To step back a moment, the first post didn’t exactly explain why Owen and I were on the boat. I can only surmise that when Trent asked me to crew early on in the week, I think it was partly because we’d already been touch by email and Twitter, and partly because of my familiarity with understanding weather and general Channel knowledge. But that’s a supposition. These things happen in Dover, and in Varne Ridge especially. Those for example who don’t think The White Horse pub in Dover closing is important (hopefully only temporarily), fail to understand the nature of the people you can meet there and the bonds of Channel swimming. It’s not about the pub itself but the global culture and tribe of Channel swimming. The Channel World is a small world.

During Alan Clack’s successful Solo the previous day, both Owen and I were Tweeting and using the Sandycove Island Swim Club GPS Tracker. Trent, Damian and Harley were following on Twitter and saw some of the flavour of the Channel and our understanding of the Channel, the shipping lanes, the Separation Zone, feeding, stroke rates etc. No big deal, I often forget that there was a time we didn’t know this stuff, that we as Channel Junkies weren’t always steeped in Channel lore. Swimming, crewing, getting weathered out, unsuccessful swims, talks with Channel legends, all add to the level of knowledge. Probably most important is being a Sandycove Island SC member with eighteen English Channel Soloists and multiple crew, all hanging around clogging up the water and the pubs like some kind of two-legged lichen.

Assembling in Varne Ridge, 3.30am

Trent asked Owen and I the night before if we would look after photos and video. Rather than using Trent’s camera, I decided to use my own EOS, I’d sacrifice a Zoom lens in favour of a camera I’d been learning for the last few months and was less likely to mess up. Owen would handle Trent’s Go-Pro and I had my own Kodak Playsport waterproof for some easy HD video, which I mainly only used for the briefing and start. Along with these functions, I also said to Harley and Trent that even on a flat day some people get seasick, and Owen and I have a good record of not getting seasick,e specially after surviving Viking Princess the previous day, one of the toughest boats I’ve ever been on. Extra hands would be useful for some fetching and carrying tasks, maybe more so just in case Harley or Damián got sick. This thankfully did not turn out to be the case.

We got the gear on Gallivant by about 3.45am, the flask Harley had given to me to fill broke in the car on the way down to Dover. We had other flasks also but was this to be my part in Trent’s downfall? Páriac once said to me that I was the only one who’d put my own dumb mistakes on my blog, I’ll try to continue to do so for him.

Not too long after boarding, Mike Oram, who would be considered the senior CS&PF pilot, came up to the top deck for disucssion and a briefing, working out the details with Trent. It was, unusual. After some to-ing and fro-ing, a start time was established with Trent expressing his desire to go for the record with no tide leeway in the start time. Feeding, breathing and position were all discussed, with Trent saying he would breathe only on his right hand side, and therefore taking position on the port side, usually the best side for the Channel, as it affords protection from the most likely prevailing winds. There was some confusion, accents and terminology, that got sorted out. It was a Mike Oram briefing, saying how he’d been told Trent only got World’s Number 1 because everyone else was focusing on the Olympics, how Trent was only his third engine and in the course of this he mentioned how Petar Stoychev has rung.

Harley Connolly, Trent Grimsey, Damian Blaum

With Trent and team opting to return to Varne for another hour’s attempted sleep, Owen and I visited the 24-hour garage across the road, location of so many last minute pre-Channel swim emergency pitstops, for coffee.

We reconvened on deck at about 5.40 am, the first mauve and puce tones of false dawn lightening the eastwards sky-canopy over the dock beyond the Clock Tower. Gallivant cast off about 6.20 am, the light by then bleeding up into the sky over the walls of the Prince of Wales pier.

The trip from the harbour to Shakespeare Beach, from where Captain Webb started in 1875, only takes 10 to 15 minutes in good weather and dependant on which end of the beach will be the start point. As we steamed out of the harbour between the twin lighthouses, the sun had cleared the horizon and was beginning its daily climb to apogee, burning a golden cast into the sky. It laid out a dazzling golden-silver road eastward for Trent and Gallivant to thread to the horizon and through the mega-ships of the world’s busiest shipping lane, which plied their way down the south-west shipping lane.

Those familiar with Dover and Channel crossings will know, (and now so will you), that leaving the harbour the water is almost always rough, as the tide pulls past the harbour mouth at speed, churning up the surface, making boats heave and roll. It’s the place of first seasickness in crews, first panic in swimmers.

Few places are as real, as immediate, as leaving Dover Harbour. It’s where Trent, (and Alan the day before and I two years previously, and so many others) have felt the  immensity of the task ahead.

We steamed quickly to the eastern end of Shakey, near the cliff. The aid was chilly, crew all covered up while Trent got ready. He’d applied zinc oxide to his face earlier, so it was pasty-white, sun-cream on back and the essential lube, Harley and Trent using Vaseline and having his first encounter with lanolin (or “wool fat”, as they called it), the lanolin being extremely difficult to apply because in cold it solidifies, which is why experienced Channel swimmers mix it with Vaseline, which retains the better anti-chaffing properties of lanolin, but adds the ease of application of petroleum jelly. Dollops under the arms warmed it up and mixed it in the petroleum jelly.

Trent sat, a towel from his Lac Traversée International marathon race which he’s recently won around his shoulders to keep him from chilling in the last few minutes. He duct-taped his cap to his forehead, a trick obviously learned on the rarefied aggressive FINA Grand Prix circuit, (and probably appropriate for racing the Sandycove Island Challenge against Finbarr Hedderman also), then took a Sharpie and wrote on his hand, but I didn’t intrude to find out what he wrote, though I wished later I had a clear photo of what he wrote when I found out.

We stopped about 100 metres from the beach at about 6.40am and Trent, having been warned about shallow water, kind of rolled into the water and swam it, the water contacting the lanolin under his arms turning it white.

At the shingle beach, notoriously difficult to walk on, he stood and stretched his arms, Mike gave a 10 second countdown, which Trent couldn’t clearly hear, and shortly Gallivant’s whooping siren sounded, Trent raised his arm, as all Channel swimmers do, to indicate swim commencement, the stopwatch started, he ran and dove in the water and started swimming across the English Channel, the most famous stretch of swimming water in the world, the White Cliffs behind.

The record attempt was on, fourteen years after Trent first dreamed not just of swimming the Channel but at age ten dreamed of being the fastest to ever swim this legendary stretch of water.

On to Part Three.