I didn’t think 2013 was a great year for swimming new locations for me, though early in the year I’d hoped that would be different. Unsurprising, I suppose, as the longer I’ve been swimming, the further I would need to travel to swim new locations. I’ve covered all the Copper Coast, much of the rest of the Waterford coast and I’m not a fan of river swimming, and there are no significant lakes anywhere near me. Also, I had no big swim this year, not being able to afford one, and the situation looks the same for 2014. :-(
But that didn’t stop me having a look through the year’s locations, and there were a few I’d forgotten to add to my favourites and in review the year wasn’t bad.
I’ll start with my watery home, Waterford’s Copper Coast, and most specifically Tramore Bay from my usual starting location of the Guillamenes Cove.
It wasn’t all good at the Guillamenes this year. The increasing litigiousness of Irish society and the nonsensical and fearfully reactionary approach of Tramore town council and my own club led to this steel monstrosity, which so incensed Wallace.
Newtown Cove is only 200 metres away from the Guillamene Cove. Though I swim past it on at least half of all my swims, dependant of swim direction, yet I start there less than one time in a hundred. We did however start the distance camp swim from Newtown Cove.
My favourite other location on the Copper coast is Kilfarassey, providing as it does a range of reefs, caves, tunnels and swim distances and directions, centered around my favourite playground of Burke’s Island which sits about 600 metres from the beach. As a swimmer and blogger I use more representational images. But as an aspiring photographer, I’m increasingly drawn to try to capture more of how I feel about a place.
In the first two of the extraordinary five whole weeks of summer that Ireland received in 2013, while the water hadn’t yet risen above 10C, I swam more on the coast at the east side of Tramore Bay. Swimming out from Ballymacaw, Portally and Dunmore East, including finally swimming partway into Seal Cave between Portally and Ballymacaw, a scary place. I’ve never swum this wild stretch of coast without experiencing strong tidal currents running east or west.
One Saturday in June, I took some photos of an inshore fishing boat passing below the cliff walk. Three days later I heard of yet another boat from the local main fishing port of Dunmore East lost with all three hands, all of them brothers, off Powerstown Head, which marks the entrance to Tramore Bay and can be seen in the first photo above, and which is the terminus of the easternmost stretch of Waterford’s coast. When I checked my photographs, it was indeed the same boat, the Dean Leanne, with two of the three tragically lost brothers onboard, probably the last every photograph of the brothers at sea. I found a connection to the family and passed on all the photos.
In January a group of us attempted an Ice Mile in Dublin at the Bull Wall, but the water wasn’t cold enough, even though I got quite hypothermic.
A few weeks later In March, the same group swam in the Wicklow Mountains at Lough Dan. For a variety of reasons I decided against the full attempt but the trip was great, and wading into ice-covered water measuring less than two degrees at the edges was … interesting.
In the coldest spring in over fifty years in Ireland, Dee and I took some Mexican visitors to the West Coast for the view. The howling Force Eight wind and five degree (Celsius) air meant they were unable to emerge to see much of the scenery. But apparently the most shocking thing they saw was me going swimming in Doolin harbour in a three metre swell in a howling wind and crashing waves, wearing a Speedo, with a dolphin and two fully dry-suited divers. How Dee & I chuckled.
I don’t think my first Sandycove trip of 2013 was until April, but I managed more Sandycove laps in 2013 than in 2012. My lifetime total is still well below 200, so joining the Sandycove “D” Club of 500 lap swimmers seems distant at best and I shall to remain content with being “C” club member. Most of the rest of the County Cork Coast eluded me this year, despite early promises from other Sandycove swimmers. And I guess I’ve written and shown you plenty of Sandycove before.
April and May saw me returning to my usual caves on the coast, but leaving exploration for new caves until the water warms up later on in the summer.
I made it back to Coumshingaun in the Comeragh Mountains during both winter and summer. Coumshingaun is the closest lake to me, if one ignores the 45 minute climb, but only I swim it during summer as the edge is circled with rocks and being so far from a road the risks are too high to swim in winter.
I’m not sure if I made it out to Carricknamoan rock off Clonea in 2012, but I was back there in 2103. It’s a swim that looks simple in the picture below, taken from the slight height above the beach, and is only about three kilometres round trip, but it still requires experience as the rock is so low that it can’t be seen until the last couple of hundred metres, and there are changing tidal currents.
I also completed a short swim I’d scouted in 2012, swimming out of Ardmore Bay to the wreck of the Samson, under the cliffs of Ardmore Head. (Ardmore is the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland). You can take a shorter 10 minute swim to the wreck if you climb down the path to the angling point and start from there, but what’s the fun in that? While rounding Ardmore Head into the bay on the return swim, Dee took a favourite photo with mine.
While Distance Camp final weekend and the qualification and torture swims were on, I instead cancelled my planned attendance on the last weekend to catch up with a swim I wanted to do for many years, to circumnavigate Skellig Michael, the 800 feet high island peak the site of a 1500 year old ancient hermetic site, 12 miles off the Irish south-west on the end of the Continental Shelf. Another swim not for beginners, despite its short course.
During the summer, I also range out along the Copper Coast away from usual entry and exit spots, particularly liking to risk swimming across Ronan’s Bay, as the return trip can present currents strong enough to cut swim speed by two-thirds and generate a significant challenge.
August is the summer peak for open water swimmers. Long warm(-ish) days (this is Ireland after all), warm water (16 to 17 degrees Celsius in August this year, exceptional) and races. Carol Cashell organises the local favourite Ballycotton 4 kilometres race, which is usually cursed with bad weather, late in August. It’s a challenging swim and the conditions the past two years have made it an experienced-swimmer-only race.
After the race, after the pub, I wandered back down to the tiny beach to catch the moon over the island.
September saw two visits to Dover for Sylvain’s Channel Butterfly swim. So there were the usual swims in Dover Harbour,
…and a swim into France with Sylvain.
Not a bad swimming year I guess, in reflection.
If the weather co-operates, when this post is published, I’ll be swimming at the Guillamenes for my Christmas day swim.
Update: The Christmas day weather didn’t co-operate. The swim was cancelled due to heavy seas, but I swam anyway and about 20 people foolishly followed me into the water. Foolish as the swell as almost three metres, and I’ve had a lot of practice at timing and rough water particularly in Tramore Bay. But everyone was safe and fun was had.
Maybe we’ll get to swim together next year but regardless, have a happy holiday and my best to you all, my friends.
I wrapped up 2012 with a few posts on some photos I’d taken through the year related to swimming. About the time I writing those posts, I embarked on what is known as a 365 Project, taking a photograph (often many more) every day for a year, which I completed this week. (I started it thanks to Sandycove swimmer Riana Parsons and those 365 photographs can be seen on my Blipfoto account.
Portraiture is a difficult aspect of photography for some, including me, as it requires either a willingness to demand co-operation from subjects or a constant almost covert imposition of a camera. I’m not comfortable with either, but I have been learning to pursue the form. The number of portrait photographs from the year is still low and time goes by when I completely forget to take any.
So here are a few of my preferred shots of swimming people from the year. Once again, i chose mainly based on photographic merit rather than any personal relationships, but the range illustrates, I think, what attracts us about this sport, the people we met, the friends we make.
My swimming Dad: David Frantzeskou, along with Evelyn, the owner of Varne Ridge Caravan Park outside Dover, one of my favourite places and amongst my favourite people, with so many different and enduring memories. It took some convincing of both David & Evelyn that this was a shot that I was proud of, displaying that slightly perplexed look we know so well on David’s face.
I was fortunate to be part of another World Record English Channel swim crew for the second year in a row, this time with my friend Sylvain Estadieu. While images of Sylvain butterflying away from the White Cliffs or standing triumphant with the French tricoloeur are popular, this one is my favourite, the moments before the swim, a glimpse into Sylvain.
On a grey day in summer we took to a few laps of Sandycove to wish our 2013 Manhattan Island Sandycove swimmers, Liam, Carol & Lisa the best. One of my shortlived waterproof cameras from this year (three!) caught a typical Liam Maher pose, English channel swimmer in front of Sandycove’s famous Red House (now beige). The Red House is used to mark final 400 metre sprints, the best line for the slipway and for the marathon swimmers of the club, could be seen from about two kilometres out for those who have braved the Speckled Door to Sandycove swim. The laugh on Liam’s face is entirely typical.
After the Global Swim Conference visitors had all left the island, there were a few local Sandycovers hanging around chatting. Probably eating cake. Left is Eoin O’Riordan, middle is Carol Cashell and right is Maeve Moran. Eoin joined Carol in an English Channel two-way relay team as a substitute and did some great training, and the team went on to set a new two-way six person national English Channel record, after Carol had returned from getting second placed lady in the Manhattan Island Marathon swim. Maeve is another Sandycove regular and perennial and invaluable volunteer who will be swimming an English Channel relay next year.
Nick Adams, President of the CS&PF and multiple English Channel soloist and other swims, celebrates being inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame as the Global Open Water Conference in Cork. With him is English Channel solo and many other swims, Dr. Sakura Hingley. Nick and Sakura had been married only recently, on August 25th, the anniversary of Captain Matthew Webb’s first English Channel solo. Both have been promising me articles for this blog for over two years. I am starting to lose hope.
My very good friend Lisa Cummins, now living down-under and getting a free summer, well-known to all as one of the legendary two-way English channel swimmers. Lisa and I were once again on a few adventures this year, and therefore she had to put up with many attempts at portrait shots by me before I finally found one I was pleased with, in Sandycove of course.
Ray is a member of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club, my other (non-racing) club. Every day of the summer, from May until the end of September, Ray empties the bins, picks up rubbish and litter, keeps the coves and lawns of Newtown and Guillamenes pristine, and even cleans the public toilets for the tourists, after the town council refused to so do. Ray is one the quiet heroic volunteers without whom no club in the world could survive and I have enormous respect for him.
Left to right, Ciáran Byrne, Eddie Irwin, Craig Morrison, , me being manhandled, Finbarr Hedderman in back and Liam Maher, after a spring swim in Sandycove. Channel Soloists all. I didn’t take this shot, but handed the camera to Maura (Hynzie) Morrison. When you are being manhandled by Finbarr (6’4″) & Liam (6’8″) it’s like being caught in a landslide, there’s no fighting it. It’s good to have such friends.
Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club, 85 years old, and swimming at the Guillamenes for 75 years. I don’t think a single occasion has passed over the years that Billy hasn’t used the same joke with me, that I am not to swim past the Saltees (Islands), despite my offering to write him some new material. Billy is currently working on a history of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club that hopefully is almost near completion and to which I am really looking forward and will hopefuly publish her and on the club website, which I have completely neglected .
Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation pilot and gentleman, Paul Foreman. Formerly of Pace Arrow, now of the Channel fleet’s best boat, Optimist, pilot for Gábor Molnar and Jen Hurley and our tragically lost friend Páraic Casey, Paul holds a special place of affection for many Sandycove swimmers who know him and were friends of Páraic.
If you were to come up with any list of the ten most important people in the history of Channel swimming, Freda Streeter would be on that list. Mother of Alison, the Queen of the Channel and CS&PF Channel pilot Neil, Freda has trained hundreds of Channel swimmers and was instrumental in the formation of the CS&PF. For thirty years every weekend from May until September, with Barrie and Irene Wakeham and many others who assist, Freda runs a free Channel training camp for all comers.
I finally met cheeky chappie and South African Channel soloist Roger Finch in Varne Ridge, where all Channel swimmers eventually meet and then one day on Dover beach. He was training with Otto Thaining, whom I briefly met later. Otto was training to be the oldest Channel Soloist. Roger and I knew many people in common. Unfortunately Otto got weathered out, but my money is on him both returning and being successful next year. With the ebullient Roger in his crew he’s all set.
My young friend Owen, the Fermoy Fish and I voyaged together again this year, most notably on his pioneering Blackwater swim. After Trent Grimsey’s swim last year, I’d come to the conclusion I may have taken my best ever photo of a swimmer. I guess my development as a photographer now leads to me realise that was a laughable conceit. Reviewing my pics of the year, I’m currently of the belief this is the current best photo of a swimmer I’ve taken, getting past the stroke, the conditions, and inside Owen, as close metaphorically as I can get into another swimmer’s mind.
During Sandycove Distance Week, about 20 of the less lazy of the swimmers came over for a swim with me on the Copper Coast. It was one of the best days of the bet summer in a generation. There were complaints about the water being too warm! granted, this photo wasn’t chosen for its photographic merit, but for the sheer pleasure I derived from so many visitors.
Constrained as I am from publishing a photo of her, here’s my silent partner in most adventures and supporter in others.
I look to meeting you all and capturing your images in 2014.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Raiding 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.
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.
Next 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
He 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.
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.
For Sylvain, I think it started even earlier.
After his previous English Channel Solo in 2009, on the same tide as Owen O’Keeffe and Lisa Cummins, he had decided in early 2010 to do four laps of Sandycove by I.M. Sandycove is about 1700 metres around (average), so that was about a mile of each stroke. He’d done it with Gábor as company and the seed was sown for the later grander adventure, though over the course of the following three years, we were party to some of his ideas. He finally settled on a butterfly crossing, as no man had crossed the Channel by butterfly, though both Julie Bradshaw and Vicki Keith had previously crossed the Channel using that stroke.
Booked for September 2013, in September of 2012, Sylvain, committed to transparent rules like most marathon swimmers, engaged in a discussion on the marathonswimmers.org/forum about what extra rules could or should apply to such a crossing, with particular reference to stroke judging, something with which those of us who swim front crawl don’t have to be concerned. In the autumn he contacted the CS&PF through President Nick Adams, asking for the CS&PF committee to agree the rule-set in advance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
One 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“.
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…”
No precept is more sacred to marathon swimmers than the forbidding of a deliberate touch between swimmer and anything else; boats, people or equipment other than feed supplies. That is the way we disqualify ourselves or how we signify that a swim is over. Until you have been there, until it has been you or until you have seen a swimmer agonise for long minutes in the water, knowing there is no hope of continuing, but knowing they or you have to reach out and touch the boat, you can’t understand this.
It’s a really, really, really big deal for us.
Everything about swimming reduces to those moments. It’s difficult to explain how it feels to try to push a swimmer beyond any possibility of continuing a swim, beyond what you want to push them, so they will know afterwards they did everything. It’s different from pushing yourself. You almost hate yourself for pushing them. So the swimmer will have no doubts that when they reached out to touch the boat, it was the right and final act. When you dismiss or wilfully and repeatedly ignore these essential facts, disregard this moment of truth and subsequently lie about it, you guarantee the animosity of the marathon swimming community.
Let me be repeat what I said earlier in the series:
I do not really care what the general public thinks about Diana Nyad. The world is full of crooks, cheats and charlatans who had public support, from Lance Armstrong to Silvio Berlusconi. There is nothing new in this. Diana Nyad needs public worship and adulation. I’m happy with just having friends.
Maybe Diana Nyad will somehow square this circle and be proven to be a paragon of virtue, despite all the items of concern outlined below. Though I do not think this will happen, nor do I believe it’s even possible. But if it does happen, it will be great for swimming and we will have served the purpose of keeping marathon swimming honest.
No-one should forget that without the forum and the questions of a few, the public would have fawned all over Diana Nyad with blind adulation, everything would have been accepted. Because Diana Nyad is nottruthful and all her claims to be so are empty.
If you hate me because I don’t share your hero-worship of Diana Nyad, I don’t care. If you have bought into the hype, (possibly literally), I don’t care. If you hate me because you think I am a “hater“, I don’t care (and you need to understand what irony means. Hint: listening to Alanis Morrisette won’t tell you).
I care about Rob Bohane stepping into the English Channel for a third time, knowing what he had gone through twice already, no fanfare, no merchandise, no bullshit. Just courage and what Channel Swimmer Sarah Thomas so memorably called on the forum, integrity. I care about all the others, stepping off a shore in the unknown, sharing common values in how they swim. In their heads only fear and excitement, a goal, a dream. To swim across. Not a movie, not adulation, not chat shows. Not deception.
Courage and integrity. A fitting epithet for marathon swimmers.
Sylvain Estadieu publicly seeking prior discussed rules for his English Channel butterfly crossing. Lisa Cummins making sure no-one could touch her when she stood up on a dark empty beach before wading back in to swim back to England. Trent Grimsey picking up litter on Dover beach. Wendy Trehiou. Jackie Cobell. Paraic Casey. Susan Taylor. Kevin Murphy. Alison Streeter. Steve Redmond. More. So many more. A roll call of courage and integrity.
It’s not that I am bothered about Diana Nyad’s media presence. It should be great for our sport. I certainly loved the coverage of Jackie Cobell, Sylvain Estadieu, Lisa, Cummins, Stephen Redmond. But I do care when the media coverage is so overwhelmingly based on what I believe to be Diana Nyad’s misrepresentation. I believe that coverage should be accurate and represent our shared values and portray the reality of our swimming world. When Diana Nyad’s actions sully past, present and future swims and swimmers, she essentially attacks friends and people I respect. So it becomes personal.
I care about my sport. My friends. My interpretation of right. My sense of trying to live up to the people I respect. I need to be able to look my friends in the eye knowing I have been true both to them and to myself, (even if they are not making the same judgement). Nothing anyone can say can take away what is for me a fundamental precept, that I require of myself. Therefore Diana Nyad has tested me, had forced me to this series and maybe that’s why this was such emotive stream-of-consciousness writing for me. The Diana Nyad controversy has sullied things I care about and I intend to reclaim those values for myself and my friends.
During the height of the controversy and discussion on the marathonswimmers.org forum, the forum went offline a couple of times over the weekend of the seventh and eight of September. Until now we have said publicly that was due to traffic. In fact it was due to repeated Denial of Service (“cyber”) attacks. We do not know the origin.
When they are trying to shut you up, you know you are surely doing something right.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win“. – Gandhi
What it all boils down to
The items below are based not just on the panel, but include previous events and events which have since come to light. The list below is why the onus is on Diana Nyad to prove that despite her protestations of being “ethical” that she is trustworthy and that the swim has any credibility. In this case the swim and the swimmer cannot be separated.
Despite her protestations of honesty, the case against Diana Nyad’s integrity is very strong and includes the following very extensive list. References for almost everything in this list can be found on the marathonswimmers.org discussion thread. Her comment on Facebook alone contains multiple problems.
Rules & Observation
Despite repeated calls from marathon swimmers (including myself), Diana Nyad never published any rules before any Cuba to Florida swim.
Her methods during her 2011 and 2012 Cuba to Florida swims include getting onto the support boats. What would she have claimed had she been successful, given her assertions that she’s never been assisted?
Her claim that she couldn’t remember touching the boat in 2012.
Conflicted reports by team members of what touches were carried out. (There are actual photos exist of her being held).
Her conflicting claims that she never touched anything in the recent 2013 swim, yet later admitting she had been touched.
Her repeated continuing claims in the press of some undefined world record.
Her claims of not knowing about Observing requirements (to me).
Her previous use of conflicted Observers who were simultaneously promoters, journalists and a sponsor.
He claim that her Observer’s belong to a non-existent organisation (Open Water Swimming Association).
Her use of unknown Observers with no experience and no recognised training, reputation or affiliation. Her own team members ironically say a qualified team is essential.
No publication of any standards or rules according to which any Observer would be judging.
The casual retrospective dismissal of the well-documented by her own team, 7 1/2 hours without feeds, as a misquote. (“That was a mistake”), not corrected or ever mentioned by the team until raised by the forum.
Her post-panel deliberate TV statement that the team had provided all the requested documentation, (they still haven’t). She said this was because she doesn’t know how to upload documents.
Diana Nyad team member’s posts on the forum are contradictory in establishing what rules they might have been following. Much of their talk of rules seems to have been derived from the actual post-swim forum discussion and to be conflated with a non-swimmer’s understanding of English Channel rules and other rules and how, where and why these are used.
Use of an iPhone as a stopwatch. (That says a lot about the standard of rules and Observation. Strictly forbidden in almost any sport).
The events surrounding Walter Poenishes first assisted Cuba to Florida swim, before and after, contain multiple problems for her claimed integrity, including actually libellous personal attacks, subversion of sponsors and media for her own ends and ultimately the ruining of a man’s life. Mr Poenisch had to take legal action before Diana Nyad withdrew her attacks but he was never able to repair the damage she had already done.
Her dismissal of Suzie Maroney’s Cuba to Florida swim also as assisted (which it was) but never acknowledging that she herself was assisted.
Any assertions that the community now accepts that she swam the distance. I myself don’t say this. Without reputable experienced Observers (more than two are required for 48+ hours) and original Observer Logs that can be proven to be created on the relevant dates. There is no way to know. In fact I don’t seen now how this can ever be proven. The requirement for stringency has been caused by Diana Nyad having heard all questions in public after the swim was over before she ever set out to clarify.
Her repeated calling on some unknown higher authority called “the sport of open water swimming” or “the auspices of the sport” for the media. (Please refer to the vote above).
Her claim of no contact to her from the marathon community.
Her ignoring an offer to help set up an Observing Organisation specifically for her and the Florida Strait.
Her implicit denial that such an offer was made to made.
The apparent denial of what her own jellyfish advisor Dr. Yanigahara says was essential safety treatment, to Chloe MacCardel for her Cuba to Florida attempt.
Her untrue assertion that “my own peer group, instead of coming to me and asking me questions went to the media“. (In fact the media contacted us, Diana Nyad is the one who courts the media. I answered one media request early on and ignored the few subsequent requests).
The lack of real explanation about the apparent contradiction in her own video evidence of the navigator versus the public claims.
Her disrespect for other swimmers.
Her hypocritical treatment of Penny Palfrey and Chloe McCardel, with public claims of well-wishing, contradicted by post-swim statements hoping they would fail.
A Team Nyad source told of her later instruction to her team “do not the feed the trolls” specifically about the forum, whom she also called peers when it suited. somewhat at odds with this statement: “They want to know how the facts came down so they can understand it. They have every right to ask all these questions, and we have every intention to honor the accurate information.“
Confusion over apparent discrepancy between publicly available Florida current satellite data and Diana Nyad’s post-swim Florida Current data, for the same days.
Her appeal to the Court of Public Approval, (in science, one of the most conclusive demonstrations of fraud).
Her utter public disrespect for volunteers, calling them “traitors”.
Diana Nyad, with a lifelong history of braggadocio and deceit about swims, including exiting the water, and with a tenuous relationship to the concept of rules, with no Independent Observers, claims to have done an unassisted swim , which includes a previously uncharted current that allowed her more than double her swim speed in open water after 30 hours.
Diana Nyad followed a lifelong pattern of deceit about swimming for self-aggrandisement and ego.
Ceteribus paribus. All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the best.
When you are sitting in the changing room of your pool or at the beach or somewhere and someone says to you “did you hear about that woman who swam from Cuba to Florida …“. Take a breath. Don’t shrug it off. Don’t worry about seeming like a crank. Instead say “well, actually, let me explain about that to you…”
I struggled with how I could wrap this up. What could I say that could make any difference?
Then again, I realised I didn’t have to make a difference. I only had to do what I have done. Write and let sunlight disinfect Diana Nyad. But something else happened as I wrote, as I got further into this series. I started this series with a sense of grim resignation, frustration and ennui. But as I wrote, I felt better. I felt better and I felt more able to be completely honest about what I think of this debacle. As I wrote, we all took back our sport.
Further, I realised I could make a personal decision, a decision just for myself.
I am a channel swimmer. The title is one of my proudest possessions. I can use it because of the trust and integrity of the worldwide marathon swimming community (any Channel applies), and I choose to use it because of the respect I have for friends and swimmers far greater than I who hold that title.
You know that one decision I can make about Diana Nyad? You’ll laugh. It’s not all this writing. It’s not the forum, the panel, the conversations, emails, messages or even this series.
The strongest personal statement that I can make, here and now, is that I would not let Diana Nyad sign my marathon swimmers autograph book. I do not believe Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida.
Diana Nyad does not appear to have the probity or integrity that I require of her.
Thanks for sticking with this and thanks for all the supportive messages.
For whatever it’s worth, I feel cleaner now. See you on the Copper Coast, in Sandycove or in Dover.
As I said previously, I endured three hours of the panel on the telephone before bailing out about thirty minutes before the end. You are surely thinking to yourself, only three hours compared to this unending series? Yes, that’s how I feel also, actually. :-)
Swim promoter, panel organiser, Moderator and former Observer and Sponsor of Diana Nyad, Steve Munatones said there would be people from Hawaii to Germany on the call, but mine was the only voice from outside the USA, and as such I felt uncomfortable, a token voice of the stuffy English Channel community. The bad European from Hollywood movies, my Irish brogue an unusual substitute for the more common clipped tones of a German or English film baddie, (apologies to my English and German friends)! Rampant paranoia, I have to admit.
Because this wasn’t the world of swimming I know, the world of shite-talk about swimming, and craic* with friends at the Guillamene, in Sandycove or Dover, going for a Sandycove lap or three. Instead this was a world of famous swimmers, lawyers, media and manipulation.
Other facts contributed to my paranoia. In the lead-up to the call, Steve Munatones emailed that he was looking forward to my contributions on the subject of the current. This set off more alarm bells for me. I write here about tides and currents for swimmers, but mostly tides because I think it’s a woefully under-represented subject that’s really important for safety, and if I can learn something and pass it on that’s helpful.
Ocean currents are specific to their region and as such beyond my limited knowledge. I’m not even a sailor. The only ocean navigation map I have studied in any great detail is the English Channel map. I quickly disabused Steve of any notion that I claim expertise. I can understand the global and macro regional details but that’s about it and that’s only because I like reading about that stuff.
It was enough that I had to suffer the essential charade of the panel. Can we agree that I did so you didn’t have to?
I’ll stick mostly to my own input, with an occasional foray into other’s contributions as I saw them. Should any of the other panel members wish to add any comments here, please email them to me guys, and I’ll add them here (publicly identified Panel Members 1 to 10, number 11 Mike Lewis has his own paid outlet, he was a conflict-of-interest previous Nyad Observer, he can take a flying jump) .
The call started with Moderator and Diana Nyad supporter and swim promoter Steve Munatones introducing everyone very briefly, extended introductions would have been interminable (like this subject) and intimidating (for me).
Diana Nyad made a lengthy opening statement. The word respectfully was used by Diana Nyad again, apparently without any irony. It included a statement that she has never cheated in her life. As with almost everyone she said, I felt her statements were not for the panel or the subject, but with a firm eye to the media. Yes, I had preconceptions. I am not at all embarrassed by this.
Ding, Ding. Round 1
The significant first portion of the call contained John Bartlett outlining experience with his confirmation of the existence of the northerly current. Then we went through a round of Q&A with each member of the panel. John Bartlett answered some, Diana Nyad or Bonnie Stoll answered some others. Then next round would move onto the next subject.
You can jump the technical parts by going straight from the bold arrow below, to the next bold arrow further down.
I can swim in the winter in Ireland because as every Irish school child knows, the 50º+ North Latitudes of Ireland and Great Britain is kept clear of ice during the winter months by the North Atlantic Drift current. This is part of the Global Thermohaline Circulation, also known as the Global Conveyor Belt. The North Atlantic Drift current is fed by the warm Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream comprises two main components, the important-for-our-discussion Florida Current and the Antilles Current which flows north and east of Cuba to where both join off the Florida coast. The Florida Current flows out of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean between Cuba and the Florida Keys, a long stretch of interconnected islands and atolls. Deep breath.
The Florida current is fed by the warm waters and weather of the western Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico and must flow in a north-easterly direction to exit into the Atlantic, since of course there is land is the way otherwise. This gap between Florida and Cuba is known as the Florida Strait. A Strait, like the Dover or Cook Straits, is a narrow stretch of water that connects two larger bodies of water and as such is usually typified by strong currents, the so-called finger-over-a-garden-hose effect.
To swim from Havana to Florida, Diana Nyad had to swim across this current to the north, when it would be trying to push her North-east, away from land. To see the effects on the path of a swimmer swimming across a normally three knot tidal current, look at the first section of almost any English Channel swimming map of which there are many out there. (Ignore Trent’s world record map as atypical). Aand relax.
——>> End of jump.
Part of the problem of analysing the swim is that Diana Nyad apparently swam almost due north across the usual flow of current or had it flowing directly behind her pushing her toward land. And she did so at a greater than world record pace. Bored yet? You will be.
John Bartlett, Team Nyad Navigator essentially said that the team had the advice of an oceanographer who used a process the oceanographer called altimetry. This is a phrase for measurement of the ocean surface height, presumably from satellite. I have been unable to determine the origin or wide-spread use of this phrase in meteorology but I do know satellite altimetry is used to measure tidal movement. Measuring the ocean height would lead to the identification of upwellings and downwellings. These are the flows of cold water (upwellings) and warm (downwellings water of water from and to the ocean surface respectively. One will supposedly come with an anti-clockwise rotation, the other with a clockwise rotation, I can’t remember which is which. I do know that other things such as prevailing wind also affects the surface current direction of either.
I’d like to point here out that I, a self-identified disbeliever of the Diana Nyad story and not-at-all-an-oceanographer-or-navigator, can convey this more clearly than any of the vague hand-waving of Team Nyad outside the panel, and apparently better than Diana Nyad, who was seemingly content to not understand any of this, as she herself said. I don’t really even want to go into the incredulous story of what they claimed about last year’s swim but briefly the pilot and handler knew the 2012 swim wasn’t possible but they went out for 40 hours of swimming anyway. Seriously.
Correct identification of the current state of the ocean would allow Team Nyad to catch an anti-clockwise gyre (rotational current) across the prevailing north-easterly current and essentially catch a free ride to Florida, pushed by currents. It sounds good to a layman. I’m a layman, so I can’t really interrogate it. All this took quite a while and I found John Bartlett credible, like I found Diana Nyad’s webmaster Chris, (who unfortunately had nothing to do with the swim). I know, you are shocked, you thought I was going to argue with everything. If so you misunderstand me.
John Bartlett says that he confirmed the presence or absence of this current over many trips out in the Florida Straits over at least two years, taking about 100 drift measurements. He spoke about using special equipment, but I’ve seen ordinary boats with regular GPS identify currents or lack thereof, so that means nothing one way or t’other, it’s just curious.
I wanted to use my first round of questions in a particular area related to this so I started asking about the measurements. I wanted to get to a quantification of the area of measurement, and measurement deficiency, and a feel for the GIS grid of the prediction. No idea what I’m talking about? That’s ok, I doubt any of the other panel members did either and please remember I really am not even slightly expert in these areas. it might be worthwhile taking a jump over the following section, as I can tell you now it led nowhere.
Here’s an analogy: Weather forecasting in the upper-latitude eastern United States is excellent and very detailed and specific in time compared to the western Irish Atlantic seaboard where it’s less accurate. Do you know part of the reason for this? The prevailing winds are the same for both in the same latitudes. But one of the factors that improves the US forecasting is the large number of sensors to the west. You can have a large number of sensors…because it’s land. West of Ireland is the Atlantic, and measurement is difficult because … deep water. Satellites are increasingly used but local sensors are still essential. The further apart the sensors the quicker minor variations between them turn in unexpected localised weather changes. Weather is a chaotic unpredictable system (technically a dynamic non-linear system), and this is exactly what the butterfly flapping its wings analogy is intended to convey. The GIS grid is the Geographical Information System, or more simply the size of the measurement grid.
I was interested in trying to understand measurement time and distance intervals to see how granular they could get in identifying the magic current. To identify such a current, I think you would need a very small, very granular GIS measurement grid. Small in GIS terms is still intervals of miles.
This line went nowhere, when John Barlett told us there was no Oceanographer to answer these details, so I stopped and I’m finally explaining here what I was trying to understand. If I had any chance of identifying the feasibility of the theory, I needed to understand how it is identified and measured.
I know Forrest Nelson, President of the Catalina Channel Swimming Association had a conversation separately a few days before with John Barlett, but I don’t know any more than that.
Oh, you want another more apt analogy, that speaks specifically to the subject of marathon swimming?
——>> End of jump
The English Channel waters, (yawn, yes here we go again, Diana Nyad supporters) west of Cap Gris Nez are the most swam marathon waters in the world and the highest marine traffic lanes in the world. The charts are therefore pretty complete and the waters relatively well understood. Yet, as many channel swimmers and pilots will tell you should you ask, (as I have ’cause I’m a Channel Junkie), unexpected currents, weather shifts and changes of timing regularly occur. Fast swimmers are slow, slow swimmer are fast. Tide show up 30 or more minutes early, or late. Localised micro-depressions appear (one did during Sylvain Estadieu’s swim) not visible on weather forecasts or radar. And this happens in an area with all this traffic and recording on both sides, and two actual marine traffic control centres exist. Get my point? Unpredictable, in a smaller area, even with fairly close measurements. So you can extrapolate from there why I was asking: I can guess cold water temperatures all I like based on experience, but I have to calibrate that against an actual thermometer.
The Scientific Method considers physical testing (i.e. measurement) as important as the actual hypothesis. Intervals and measurement accuracy are important for understanding, and hence for prediction.
Now there have been many public discussions of the biggest questions over Diana Nyad; the sudden and sustained speed increase, the direction, the lack of feeding. I’m not going to go through them one by one here but I will address them later. Once again, I point you back to the forum discussion which has all the relevant information. There will be no surprise data announcements in these posts. Instead I’m trying to do what I said to Diana Nyad I was going to try in my second round questions to her, to synthesize what was already available or discussed.
Round 2. Seconds out. Let’s keep those punches above the belt.
Penny Dean, a global legend in open water swimming, Steve Munatones’ and former US open water coach, former English Channel world record-holder and the woman who literally wrote the book on open water swimming, (sigh) had been at best sycophantic on the first round. She apologised to Diana Nyad for the questions she was being asked, obviously by the rest of us. But Penny had no right to apologise for us. Prior to any real discussion she congratulated Diana Nyad. I don’t like writing that and she is entitled to say anything she pleases given her record especially compared to me, but I really don’t know why she was on the panel, if this was “a review panel”.
Possibly sensing the whitewash direction of the call, some of the panel shifted to a more direct path for the “second round”. Since I don’t want to speak for any of the panel I can say the questions varied and Barbara Held, someone who claims large admiration amongst marathon swimmers went directly to the point of the seven and half hours with no feeds. Dave Barra questioned which record Diana Nyad was actually claiming. Ron Collins asked about the apparent freshness of Diana Nyad immediately post-swim. Richard Clifford questioned on the discrepancy between videos and what was reported, such as apparent stroke rate, and recorded comments from the navigator. Evan Morrison asked specific questions about whether she exit the water or touched the boat and then about training. The answers were no (she didn’t exit), she couldn’t remember touching the boat, her speed is 50m per minute in training, i.e. two minutes per 100m but she can hold this “forever” and the unsolicited nonsense about peeing in the pool, again done for the media.
I’ll have to let those guys give their own public impression should they wish to so do but they all sounded great to me. I didn’t feel alone.
The call had already heard plenty of faux drawing-room courtesy, straight from Oscar Wilde with lots of effusiveness on both sides. I was somewhat sucked in, I’m now embarrassed to say. But this was an American call after all, I was the interloper, replete with Irish scepticism.
When the second round of questioning came to me, I waffled too long in asking my question. I hadn’t prepared it other than having it on a vague list, as I had no idea which way the call would develop. So I winged it, which led to a too-long introduction from me.
I was far too long-winded. But my essential question did make it through clearly: Why, in a swim with global visibility and of a commercial nature, therefore unlike any other swim, didn’t Diana Nyad set out to maximise transparency and use fully independent observers?
We as humans are attuned to communication signals. I sensed, in the ether of telephonic cyberspace, where the words in a telephone network switch meet, that Diana Nyad had just crossed me off her Christmas Card list.
The response was frosty and disingenuous, at best. As with earlier, I felt the answer really wasn’t going for me, but for the media, but further that I had made her uncomfortable. In the response, (no “I’m glad you asked that question” for me) Diana Nyad said that she had been out of marathon swimming for 30 years and was unaware of the rules, and wasn’t aware that she needed to personally know the observers.
At this point Penny Dean intervened and started congratulating Diana Nyad again.
So I had to stop her.
Me, a nobody, had to stop one of the most famous open water swimmers of the latter half of the twentieth-century from speaking. You couldn’t hear it in my voice but I think there was a quaver. It was in a way one of the most scary moments of my swimming life.
I disabused Diana Nyad of her response. I said that the rules of marathon swimming go back 138 years and they were in place before she stopped and are well-known, and that I wasn’t postulating a mass conspiracy theory, nor did I believe in one. Essentially she was putting words in my mouth, (the old straw-man argument tactic, say your opponent said something they didn’t so you can knock it down).
She responded again this time saying that no-one in the marathon swimming community reached out to her. This response was utter nonsense.
If you’ve read the forum thread you will know that I said that a person (Ned Denison) had emailed Penny Palfrey, Diana Nyad and Steve Munatones 18 months previously with three options on how to handle a future swim, including an offer to actually set up an zero-cost official Florida Straits Swimming Association and allow Penny and Diana Nyad substantial input to setting out Florida Strait rules. Thus giving Diana Nyad exactly what she and her supporters have been saying, that only she or the first person to do it, which at that time could only have been Penny.
You’ll also know from the forum that she said she never received it, despite that Penny Palfrey and Steve Munatones had, and that Steve Munatones was actually sitting beside her at that point. Steve neglected to mention this for the camera or anyone else. Diana Nyad said she couldn’t respond to an anonymous critic, which is fair, so I pointed out that the person (Ned) is an Honour Administrator in the International Marathon Swim Hall of Fame, which at least means a lot of people know him. When I said I would give the name to Steve Munatones privately, he never mentioned that he already knew whom it was.
Why would she turn this down? I can postulate that any prior disclosure of any rules at all was still too limiting to what she had planned.
On the forum Angel Yanigahara of Team Nyad later said that “perhaps only Diana, Chloe and Penny should make the rules for this body of water“. She is not the only supporter of Diana Nyad to make a similar claim. Indeed Diana Nyad herself back in the 1970′s claimed that the first swimmer got to make the rules, though of course Diana Nyad herself ruined the life of the first person to swim those waters, Walter Poenisch.
Would you like that bread buttered on both sides, Diana? And how about a slice of this special cake-that-you-can-have-and-eat also?
I also mentioned that Team Nyad had of course directly Tweeted me the previous year soliciting my opinion and input, as mentioned previously.
As was the tone of the entire call, when it suited Diana Nyad, her team were responsible whether either things went right or things went wrong, to suit herself and she, a journalist, doesn’t know how to use Twitter or Facebook.
I finished with the specific point that she had made two demonstrably incorrect claims regardless of what she had just claimed.
With that I was done. My foreboding of a whitewash and setup didn’t waver. I think that the reason Diana Nyad didn’t use the panel more widely afterwards was that she assumed we would be more easily wooed or impressed or roll over. Many important questions were never answered or even addressed, especially the other Observation questions.
Diana Nyad never did answer that question I’d asked.
I got two hours sleep and left for Dover, hoping to decompress from this nonsense and to crew for Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel butterfly. English Channel two-way legend Lisa Cummins was sitting beside me on the plane, and had to listen to it all, poor her. (If you haven’t visited Dover beach with Lisa, you really don’t understand how she is viewed).
I’ve finished writing. I’m not even sure how to describe the next part except it’s long. Long even by these standards. There will be a final part after that, just in time for the Global Conference in Cork. I didn’t originally plan it that way, I found no way to comprehensively cover the subject and we know that DNOWS won’t do it. Far too many words and too much time on this for me.
*I refuse to clarify this post with a definition of the indefinable yet quintessential Irish word craic. The easiest way to find is to come to the Global Conference in Cork. Lots will be had. For giggles, you could watch Steve Munatones and I dance warily around each other. We should teach him The Siege of Ennis … in swim togs. (Someone should teach me first).
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.
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 Channel zones and shipping lanes, not visible on other charts, are visible.
The Channel buoys are visible.
All Individual pilots may provide their own tracking off individual websites such as CS&PF pilot Eddie Spelling’s excellent LoveChannelSwimming.com. Eddie’s tracker for his boat Anastasia, displays great extra information such as air and water temperature, wind, and swim speed. Mike and Lance Oram’s Gallivant and Sea Satin are also accessible from their own website.
Using the boat name (or its marine registration numbers MMSI or IMO) you can find its current location on one of the online marine traffic sites such as ShipAis.com (Dover), marinetraffic.com or vesselfinder.com. For example Mike Oram’s Gallivant is MMSI 235023353.
The current 2013 list of pilots and their boats in the combined English Channel fleet:
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.
This is the last post in the series, and is a mish-mash of random Dover and environs information that may be useful for travelling swimmers.
Pilot boats and Dover Marina and Parking
Many of the pilot boats are kept in the Dover Harbour but equally others are berthed in Dover and move to Dover for swims. You should make a n effort to visit the boat with your crew before your swim. Since Dover Marina is protected, you’ll need to get the access codes from your pilot.
Parking for the Marina is under the Clock Tower. During the day, like most of Dover it’s Pay and Display. If you are going out on a Channel swim you need 24 hour parking which is available from the Dover Marina office.
As I mentioned in the second post, Channel Grease, contrary to Lynne Cox’s book, is no longer available for purchase in Dover or Folkestone. You may be able to buy it in Varne Ridge, but it’s easiest to just make your own.
Maxim or other feedstuffs.
Neither Dover or Folkestone, nor Canterbury have anywhere where you can buy Maxim or similar, even in the Holland & Barrett or so-called Sports Nutrition retail outlets. You can order Maxim from Freda Streeter via Irene Keel on the Google Channel Swimmers chat Group, if you are a member, to collect on the beach, on Saturday or Sunday… So yes, again, just bring your own.
Electronic night lights.
Lights as with Maxim, can be ordered from Irene, but could also may be readily available from Irene on Saturday and Sunday mornings on the beach during Channel training without ordering, but that’s a risk to take, especially late in the season. May also be in stock in Varne Ridge for guests to purchase. Bring your … you got it by now?
Shakespeare Beach and Samphire Hoe.
Shakespeare Beach is the departure point of Captain Webb and many subsequent Channel swimmers. It begins just outside the South Harbour wall and runs down about a kilometre to under the rising cliffs toward Folkestone. Shakey is a steep shingle beach like the harbour beach and is generally not used for swim training as it is exposed and popular with beach anglers during the day. Access to the beach can be difficult to find, but is past the Dover Port Building. Take the next turn after the Marina bridge when travelling toward Folkestone. There is (paid) parking outside the Port building and it is a very brief walk tot he beach.
Samphire Hoe is built of the spoil from the Channel Tunnel excavation and is a large wildlife area beneath the cliffs south of the town. Many swims start from Abbott’s Cliff on the south side of Samphire, a couple of kilometres from Dover. Access to Samphire Hoe is via a one-way tunnel (no pedestrian access) through the cliff off the London/Folkestone road. Parking there, like seemingly everywhere else, is paid. Access is only open from 7am to 9pm. In rough weather very large waves beach over the seawall and the area is considered unsafe in such conditions.
Dover has a few places that are popular for Channel swimmers. For those going on a pasta binge there is Dino’s in Castle Street, La Scala opposite the Town Hall, and Il Rustico in the town centre on the other side of the pedestrian underpass. All are good. Dino’s is good and has a place in Channel history having been the great Des Renford’s favourite restaurant in the seventies. It is more subdued and requires a more respectful customer, but it’s worth it. There’s a photo of Des on the wall there amongst press clippings cover the decades of operation, and the now-elderly Italian chef is the same Chef who attracted Des as a repeat customer.
A cheaper and close to the beach location for traditional takeaway is the Castle Street Fish ‘n Chip shop, two doors up from Dino’s. Open times are short, lunchtime from 12 until 2pm and evening from 4pm to 9pm. Danny Walsh and I first noticed it 2008 when we saw a queue of locals outside, the best possible sign. The last two years the quality seems a bit more variable, but I rarely got to Dover without a visit.
You should be in Varne Ridge of course. But if you’ve left it too late, there’s a reputedly good and expensive Best Western right on the esplanade.
Up on the hill just off Castle Street, near The White Horse, is Hubert House, a Bed and Breakfast guesthouse that has long been popular with Channel swimmers and which has some of the record-setting charts on the walls. Rooms are variable in size, with the one I only stayed in once being tiny and hot. Not ideal for a prolonged stay but popular with repeat customers.
Amongst the many other accommodation venues used by swimmer are the Castle View B&B, another much larger and general (no special accomodation for Channel swimming) mobile home/ holiday park close to Dover in St. Margaret at Cliffe.
Dover town centre itself is not good for shopping.
There’s a poor Co-Operative in the centre. There’s a large Tesco Extra outside town, and being able to find your way to it from the Town Centre through the one-way is a sign of a very seasoned Dover-goer. I’ve given up and think it exists in some kind of spatial Klein Bottle anomaly. The easy but longer way to travel the Canterbury Road until it appears on your left. It’s always slightly further than you think it will be. Getting back into Dover via the one-way system is much easier!
Folkestone has a large ASDA in the town centre below a multi-story car park and an Sainsburys between the Dover Road and the Harbour, that is easy to find and get to. It’s also only about five minutes drive from Varne so it’s most popular with Channel Swimmers doing a weekly food shop … every day.
Channel swimming can lead to a lot of time on your hands.
Dover’s pre-eminent attraction standing above the town is the 12th Century Dover Castle. It’s a large site and an excellent way to pass most of a day containing as it does the Secret World War Two Tunnels which were headquarters for the Dover evacuation and central to the Normandy Landings; remains of the Roman Lighthouse; the large surrounding enclosure and buildings which were used for various functions during WWII; the large central Tudor Castle and Keep; and a British Military history museum, which is you come from one of colonies may leave you with an entirely different impression than the glorification of military conquest and might. There’s a coffee shop also, so you don’t starve by being away from food for an hour. There are two ubiquitous gift shops, which contains not a single item of Channel swimming memorabilia. Dover Town Council and English Heritage which operates the Castle are at best dismissive of the not-insignificant income brought into the local economy by visiting swimmers and crew every year.
Dover and Folkestone town centres are grim but Folkestone is the better of the two. The nearest town of historical and shopping interest is the medieval town of Canterbury, birthplace of playwright Christopher Marlowe (Doctor Faustus). Canterbury is a very popular tourist location, especially during the summer weekends when parking and driving can be challenging. It’s about twenty-five minutes drive from Dover. The town centre retains much of the old layout and architecture. Most famous is the twelfth century Canterbury Cathedral, the original Anglican Mother Church and location of the murder of Thomas Beckett by Henry II to facilitate Henry’s remarriage. It’s a paid tour, but entry is free during Evensong.Driving Day-trips to France can be done by ferry, with booking the previous day the best option, with an online booking discount, or by Channel Tunnel. Either lead to Calais and Cap Gris Nez is within easy driving distance.
Travelling to France for a day trip is also popular. If you are in rented car you probably can’t bring it outside the UK. But if you can or you have your own car, then you can choose either the usual fast ferries, or the train through Channel Tunnel. Ferries go from Dover, with multiple crossing every hour. The closest/last Chunnel station is outside Folkestone. Ferries drop you in Calais, the Chunnel outside and a trip south-west to Cap Griz Nez only takes about 45 minutes drive, with a car park right at the Cap. The view down onto the Channel is very interesting for a swimmer with the strong currents often visible.
The important pub in Dover for Channel swimmers is The White Horse. Some swimmers, particularly those living closer, don’t seem enamoured of it, but I really like the place, given its place in our shared culture and I have spent more a little amount of time there over the past five years. Successful Channel relays and more importantly Soloists may, on production of proof, sign the walls or ceiling. If you do this soon after your swim it’s far easier. Much time can be spent searching for your friends, and discussing their various swims and the legends of the Channel.
The Royal Oak up near Varne on the Capel-le-ferne road has recently started replicating this in a fashion, with whiteboards for swimmers to sign. Given its closeness with Varne there is a close connection between the two and those staying at Varne especially will sign The Royal Oak which just needs to commit to a more permanent record for swimmers to feel this is not a short-lived fad.
Colllins Yard is closest to the beach adjoining the Marina and also serves food. When it can actually manage to get service right. Repeated experience has shown its food is poor and service is worse.
This post came about as a touch of serendipity. After I posted about Swedish goggles Irish distance swimmer and former national four hundred mete champion and Channel Aspirant Colm Breathnach tweeted me about Godfrey Goggles, a type of goggle in use in Ireland and the UK primarily in the 1960s and ’70s.
When as a kid I started playing and swimming in the new indoor-how-fantastic-pool we did’t use goggles initially and I clearly recall becoming more and more affected by the chlorine burn until we finally started using goggles. All I can recall of them is the squishy foam and that a pair of goggles was expected to last years and that visibility wasn’t as significant a requirement as chlorine protection.
It was easy to find some sources online for the history, notably the International Swimming Hall of Fame. So all I’m doing is collating some of that information for your entertainment.
14th century: The first recorded version of goggles may have been polished or layers of polished tortoise shells in Persia.
16th century: The Persian goggles were imported to Venice where they were illustrated in the image above.
18th Century: Polynesian skin divers used deep wooden frames. By keeping the face facing downward, air was trapped and protected the eyes from the salt water. Once glass became available (in Polynesia from European explorers) they were the first to incorporate glass lenses, though they were not fully waterproof and were easily dislodged.
1911: Thomas Burgess became the first swimmer to use goggles to cross the English Channel. It’s worth noting that both Captain Webb and Burgess were using breaststroke, front crawl still not having been fully developed.
1916: Swim goggles are patented by C.P. Troppman for use in underwater swimming but there’s no evidence of manufacture or use.
1928: Gertrude Ederle becomes the sixth person, first woman and fastest swimmer to date to swim the English Channel, and the first using front crawl (aka freestyle), using a full face mask of motorcycle goggles sealed by parafin wax.
1940: Popular Science magazine prints instructions on how to make wooden goggles.
1940s & 1950s: Florence Chadwick and other open water swimmers use their own versions with large rubber seals and double-lens glass.
1960: Individual swimmers started creating very basic goggles with plastic cups held to the face with elastic.
1968: Advertisements appear for plastic goggles in Swimming World Magazine. Apparently they are not an instant hit.
1969: Godfrey Goggles are manufactured in the UK by Thomas Godfrey. He tried a couple of types of plastic before settling on one that hadn’t previously been used for sports but we now know well; polycarbonate. Thin, light and highly durable and shatter resistant. Scotland’s David Wilkie becomes the first every competitive swimmer to wear both a cap and goggle combination at the 1972 Commonwealth Games, taking silver in the 200m breaststroke. Wilkie later went on to become the only person ever to hold only person to have held British, American, Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic at the same time. Subsequently Godfrey Goggles are allegedly copied and pirated by many goggle companies.
Since 1972: Goggles become standard swimmer equipment. It’s strange to realise that so recently they were not used by swimmers. Anti-fog, UV protection and streamlining are all incremental developments. Malmsten Swedish Goggles are released in the mid-seventies, allegedly a rip-off of the Godfrey Goggles. Swim training sessions get longer, flip-turns faster. Goggles allow elite swimmers to swim more than 4000 metres. The Men’s 1500 time drops by two minutes (13%) over three consecutive Olympics.
2000′s: Hipsters everywhere, even in swimsuits! You can purchase these wooden googles. They might make for an unusual or fun English Channel photo. But still…hipsters.
2008-2011: A brief attempt by Tony Godfrey’s grand-daughter Ashleigh to resurrect her grandfather’s business does not seem to haven been to been successful.
The Future?: Instabeat’s goggles look to be the first in a possible new wave of high-tech goggles, providing heart rate information and timing to the wearer through the lens, with future versions planned to integrate GPS. Beyond that at some point goggles similar to Google Glass seem likely.
Like my previous guide to swimming in Sandycove, there are people who live in Dover and swim there (far) more regularly than I. But also like that post, in the absence of any of the people from either place writing about the respective locations, my articles will hopefully suffice and provide some useful information for some of you.
Dover is, and likely always will be the centre of the open water swimming world, as it was the starting point for Captain Webb’s first crossing and is still to this day the launching point for the world’s most famous swim. As such it fills the place that Katmandu and Chamonix do for climbers, or Wellington for Antarctic explorers. These are locations where like-minded individuals can bump in each other in the street, on the beach or mountains, or in the pub.
Dover is a port town, the port town in British history, and is a mix of history and modern transient commerce and social deprivation. It is also the place of swimmers and for many visiting Dover may have a Channel solo or relay booked and be down for a training swim or a reconnaissance or of course their actual swim window, or just want to swim in such a famous location.
This will be a three-part post; Part One about swimming in Dover and Part Two will about Varne Ridge Caravan Park, and the Part Three will be general information about Dover and the region that might be helpful for those visiting.
The picturesque white Edwardian building along the esplanade belie the visual aspects of most of the rest of Dover, and in the sunlight the area is very pretty and well maintained. The area is paid parking seven days a week from 9am to 6pm with parking ticket dispensers situated regularly along both side of the road.
Swimming in Dover Harbour is generally done by Channel swimmers, aspirants and crew from Swimmer’s Beach on the north-east end of the beach, which is the left end of the beach facing out to sea, bounded by the first concrete breakwater.
First time visitors may often feel intimidated and change at the Bus Shelter twenty-five metres up on the esplanade, however it is fine to just jump into the group and have a chat, as that is what many of the group are also doing. With weekly tide windows many of the people visiting will also only be there a short while, and the conversations and casual meetings and chats on Swimmer’s beach are for me anyway, the very high point of Dover. You never know whom you will meet, whether it’s King of the Channel Kevin Murphy, Big Love Nick CS&PF President Adams or Jackie Cobell, or someone from Ireland…
During the summer season from early May until about mid September, solo and relay swimmers train every Saturday and Sunday morning from Swimmer’s Beach. Swim training is carried out under the watchful eyes of Channel General Freda Streeter and her crew of lieutenants Barrie the Shingle Stomper, Irene and Michelle.
Channel training is open to all swimmers of either persuasion, i.e. CS&PF or CSA, but does require a small fee for the season which will cover all the Maxim you can swallow and solo swimmers usually start at 9am while relay swimmers start at 10am. Occasional swimmers who wish to join the group still must pay a small fee.
If you don’t want to show up for the early morning training you can of course swim at any time and Swimmer’s beach is still the usual starting point.
There are three very important things to note about Dover beach:
The large tidal range of the Channel
The steep beach is shingle not sand
The entire harbour in NOT open to swimmers
Combine the first two factors and you will be entering the water at any point on a steep beach. At very low tide there is a sand bottom and climbing the shingle is a very uncomfortable or even painful experience at any time of the tide and sandals are essential, along with someone to throw them down to you or collect them. This is a lesson that once learned is rarely forgotten. There is a concrete and stone slipway to the right of Swimmers Beach which can also be used for entry and exit, but instead of rocky is extremely slippery and there is a railing that runs across the end that is often submerged, so great care should be taken when entering that way.
Over the years tensions about possible hazards and safety issues between Dover Authorities and swimmers was reduced by the introduction of an allowed range for swimmers in the Harbour. This outer limit of this range is marked by a pair of parallel white lines on the ferry and Prince of Wales piers. These can be seen from land but from either side of the harbour. There are two different signs indicating range but they don’t entirely agree as one is older.
The easiest way when heading to the north (left) end of the harbour is to aim for the corner between the esplanade and the pier. At the south (right) end the Harbour Clock-tower roughly marks the range and is easy to see except in late afternoon when you can just swim toward the Sun. The safe way to link these points is swim a fixed distance from the shore as it curves around from North-east to South-west.
The water in Dover Harbour is generally murky. On occasion it can be impossible to see your hands, or even your upper arms. It is also very salty which can certainly require some adjustment and having some liquids ready after swimming is essential.
There is no fixed direction as swimmers can approach the beach from either direction. Swimmers usually swim the full range from pier to pier and care should be given to sight forward regularly to avoid head-on collisions. There are also marking poles (cans) along the beach section which protrude above high tide that should be avoided at the bottom end of beach retaining groins running down the shingle into the water.
Despite the long piers and outer harbour wall protecting the harbour, because of the size of the entire harbour, strong winds can buffet the beach and result in unswimmable conditions. South-westerly winds cam cause the notorious (to anyone who has swim them) washing machine conditions at the north (ferry) side of the harbour and significant reflected waves result from both the ferry pier and the esplanade resulting in interesting swimming.
The harbour is also used for rowing and dingy sailing and training. The only time I’ve seen a jet ski enter it was rapidly removed by Dover Harbour Police, though I am unsure of the regulations surrounding powercraft, I believe they are not allowed within the wider recreational area. (Dover is also the only port in the UK with its own dedicated police force, separate from the local police force).
The Captain Webb memorial is north of Swimmer’s Beach on the far side of the road , instead of logically in front of the sea.
During the summer months the Sport Complex at the far end of the beach from Swimmer’s Beach is open for showers and lockers for swimmers, (but I don’t know the cost or time limitations as I’ve never used it).
The first few hundred metres out to the first corner are the most shallow and generally considered difficult swimming on a low tide due to heavy tough seaweed. Around the fourth (nearest to slipway) corner is also very shallow and can require a long detour if approached from the third corner on a multi-lap swim.
Directly across from the slipway is a small sandy beach known to local swimmers as Finbarr’s beach after Finbarr Hedderman, who was first to start using it as a feed location during his English Channel training, a practice now common to all of the local distance swimmers, and swimmers swimming out to the island towing feed boxes behind then has raised an occasional eyebrows amongst tourists.
If you have not swum regularly in Ireland or the UK, it’s important to note the tidal range, which ranges from the lowest, which rises about 3.3 metres above a ocean mean of zero, on a low neap tide, to almost six metres on a high spring tide . This tidal range has a number of implications, the first of which is that already mentioned of the much-reduced swim range on the first stretch the inside of the between the slipway and the first corner. Next is the variation in distance around the island from low to high tide of two to three hundred metres. Navigation of the first and second and fourth corners changes significantly. The first corner particularly is a jumble of reefs submerged or exposed by different degrees during the tide with many rocks all around the actual reef of the corner. Only significant experience around the island combined with an indifference to contact and probable lacerations will allow safe navigation through these.
The second corner is a sloping terraced reef on the approach which splays out in ridges as the corner is passed. Lacking the local experience it is best to swim wide around the first and second corners.
The island is generally described as kidney-shaped, as seen in the map. Even so locals describe it as having four sides, two short (the near and far sides) and two long (inside and outside). and personal preference and speed dictates how the outside is swum. Whether close in to take a longer line, wide to avoid wave reflection off the island on lumpy days or straight to the second corner for the shortest line. Taking the straight line takes practice as initially it is difficult to see the line. Taking a close line results in swimming very close to into the terraced reefs which jut out into the sea at all tides. The second corner is the corner most likely to cause injury and is the one most exposed to incoming waves and swell. Most local swimmers will attest to injuries from trying to see how tight to the corner they can go, and many swimmers who get it wrong and end up on actually the reef including locals and visitors.
Crab and lobster pots are occasionally placed on the outside of the island and it is possible to swim into submerged lines. The far side can be deceptive as in direct sunlight it is possible to swim into or even behind more reefs, but it is also one of the two location’s on an island location most likely to be slightly warmer. The third corner which leads around onto the inside is straightforward for swimmer and it’s possible to swim fairly close on most tides. It is al important to note that boats, both powered and sail, that come out from Kinsale often power into the cove to berth and great care should be given to the real possibility of unfamiliar boats running over swimmers on the third and inside sides. For single laps, having come around the third corner there is a long straight to the slipway. the well-known Red House (well known to anyone who knows anything about Sandycove Island that is is to the right. The Red House is also visible through the gap from many miles up the coast to the west). The best way to head for the slipway is a matter of debate and personal preference and can be critical in races and is also one way for the most experienced multi-lapper 500 and 100 to excel.
There are boat moorings between the Red House and the island and during summer months boats are regularly moored here. For multiple laps the line to the fourth corner is straight but the lower the tide the wider the line that must be taken to get around the fourth corner or the swimmer will either swim onto sand or into the reef just past the corner, another long outward leading and mostly submerged reef which most multi-lap swimmers have swum directly into at some point. On lowest tides swell can wrap entirely around the island and produce small clean breakers inside the fourth corner.
Click for better detail. Major landmarks and hazards indicated
There are other wrinkles to swimming around Sandycove Island that come with time and experience. The best way to learn those is to swim with locals.
Oldwarm, 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).
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 pinsfor 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).
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Part One I covered the physiological limiting factors in marathon swimming.
The various environmental aspects of a swim are not insignificant. They are especially important in that they all lay outside the swimmer’s control and often even outside the control of the support crew.
This is generally a known factor prior to a swim. Swims are either cool or cold water like the English and North Channels or warm water swims like Maui, Rottnest, Manhattan or Chloe Maccardels’ upcoming Cuba to Florida attempt. A few fall into an intermediate category defined more by the swimmer’s experience, such as the Catalina and Gibraltar Channels. Sudden changes in temperature are rare in marathon swimming and where they are possible they are also understood; such as South Africa’s west coast which is prone to sudden wide water temperature changes, and the California coast where the sudden transition from very deep water to a shallower continental shelf very close to the mainland can cause cold water upwelling at the end of a marathon swim. Air temperature is obviously much more variable and a condition of the weather but extremes of air temperature are not usual during a swim. A five degree Celsius differential can be significant for a swimmer if such a drop is also accompanied with a breeze or wind which can sap the swimmer of body heat.
The recent and future attempts at a distance and time records by necessity are held in warmer waters such as Cuba to Florida. These water are home to jellyfish with debilitating stings such as Box Jellyfish. While the cold waters of the North and English Channels are home to Lion’s Mane and Portuguese Man O’War’s endurance records are less likely and jellyfish stings in the English Channel are rarely more than intermittent, though the North Channel (the Mouth of Hell) can have miles of Lion’s Mane blooms, part of what makes it the ultimate channel swim. Attempts to swim in these waters divide swimmers in two ways: whether attempts should be made in locations not considered possible without additional protection or exceptions to the usual rules, and if so are jellyfish protection suits acceptable or the thin edge of a wedge that will inevitably lead to more overt (or hidden) performance enhancing suits? (See Evan’s analysis of his survey of marathon swimmers for an excellent overview of the contradictions of divisions and unity in the community).
The Man In The Grey Suit is a subject of great concern (and discussion) for distance swimmers. Not of any real concern here in the north-eastern Atlantic, they are a greater hazard in the warmer waters elsewhere, particularly California, the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Africa and Australia. The Cook Strait Channel swim in New Zealand is unique in having a shark evacuation rule. Shark cages have been used for marathon swims in the Caribbean and South Africa at least. Shark cages are however considered swim assistance as they increase the swimmer’s speed through eddy current drag. Other possible control methods include electronic shark repellents (whose effectiveness is not entirely assured or quantified), armed boat crew or armed or otherwise scuba diver outriders.
These are amongst the most variable of environmental factors and therefore potentially also the most limiting. Because swimmers move slowly relative to even a sailing boat, we are vulnerable to slight deviations, miscalculations or just insufficient data, the most likely cause. Even in such a well-travelled and mapped location as the English Channel, especially for swimming, pilots will occasionally speak of tides arriving early or late or with a difference force than expected. Tidal currents are understood at a larger scale, hundred of years of navigation have mapped the seas for craft, not for swimmers. Tides act in a similar chaotic way to a weather system, which means that small deviations will always creep in. The only way to improve accuracy of prediction is to improve the data, and this is not practically possible or even desired for small tidal variations. As swims occur in less well-known or new locations, the likelihood of discovering unknown local variations outside marine charts increases. Half a knot current, barely detectable to a boat, is enough to deviate a swim over hours from a projected or necessary course.
Crew and boat
Any English Channel pilot will confirm that one of the most likely causes of unsuccessful Channel swims is poor selection of support crew. The most likely cause is mal-du-mer, seasickness. For some people seasickness is a completely debilitating ailment that can sap all willpower and strength and there is no way to know whom it will strike. The solution of course is to have experienced crew. Even this can fail because people experienced on powered craft will be at the mercy of the choppy water amplified on an almost stationary craft. Other crew issues can also arise, whether accidents or other illness. Anyone who hasn’t been on a rocking boat looking down on a swimmer is unlikely to understand! And not unknown are mechanical problems on the pilot-boat. Most pilots are by necessity practical mechanics able to address problems as they arise, but not all problems can be fixed with a wrench and hammer while rocking about on the sea.
Weather changes are the bane of English and North Channel swimmers particularly. Other Channels like Tsugaru and Gibraltar and Cook are also subject to constantly variable and unpredictable weather patterns. If you are used to the predictable weather of the west US coast, with morning offshore and afternoon onshore breezes, knowing your swim will almost certainly take place with a 48 window, the difficulty of allocating two weeks or even long (like the North Channel) and still being completely unsure of getting in the water is shocking. Weather constraints obviously ran the full gamut. In the North, English and Gibraltar channels the main concern is wind (and its effect on the seas). Fog can also be a problem with 2012′s Channel season infamously seeing three solos on one day abandoned within a kilometre of France for the first time in 137 years. I’ve warned previously that fog may be the most dangerous weather condition for swimmers. In warmer humid climes like Round Manhattan, and the Caribbean, lightning storms are a serious cause for worry, a swimmer or boat caught exposed out on the water is in real danger. Having to wait for or even postpone a swim is something many marathon swimmers have undergone and the mental pressure this brings is often not inconsiderable, which I will discuss further in the next and final part.
Sylvain Estadieu, aka The Flying Frenchman, came to Ireland in 2008, where he became a Sandycove Island swimmer. He Soloed the English Channel in 2009. So despite his origin and travels around the world, and currently living in Sweden, Ireland and Sandycove will always have a claim on him.
During Channel training Sylle became notorious for his Individual Medley of Sandycove Island, four laps of the island, about 1700 metres per lap, each lap using each of the four I.M. strokes, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and front crawl. I seem to recall he said breaststroke was the worst lap.
After keeping it quiet for some time, Sylvain finally went public late last year with his intention of attempting another English Channel Solo, this time though he intends to attempt it as a Butterfly world-record attempt. Sylvain and I crewed for Gábor Molnar‘s English Channel swim, where I extracted the promise that we (Gábor and I) could crew for him. So this September, I’ll be back in Dover for another World Record attempt.
In 2010 and 2012 Sylvain and his girlfriend Great Greta travelled around the antipodes, where he left his mark by starting a tradition of non-wetsuit swimming in Lake Wanaka.
I get asked quite often if my sessions are 100% butterfly. The answer is no. I just had a look at the figures and for 2013 it turns out I’ve swam 48% of butterfly, 47% of front crawl, 4% of backstroke and just under 0.5% of breaststroke.
The other question that I get asked fairly often is if it’s easy to swim butterfly in a public lane. It can prove difficult to train front crawl if there are undisciplined bathers (Disclaimer: don’t swim in the same lane as me … I’m not a easy-friendly lane-mate) … so doing butterfly in a crowded lane sounds like it should be almost impossible, right? Well, you’ll be glad to learn that it’s possible!
The first rule of BIAPL is you don’t talk about BIAPL (you saw this one coming). One does not encourage others to do it. Especially if said others frequent the same swimming pool. We wouldn’t want a lane full with butterfliers, now that would be mayhem.
The second rule of BIAPL, which is probably more important than the first one is you’ve got to look around. This one is actually applicable to other strokes, other sports and situations like crossing the street, walking on the sidewalk, moving dishes from the dishwasher to the shelves, etc. As soon as there’s one person to share the lane with, you’ve got to start looking around yourself. Doing a complete length of butterfly with your head down is forbidden, so is taking the first stroke(s) with your head down. You look ahead as often as you can and learn to anticipate. Will I be able to take one full stroke or two short ones? Maybe I’ll have to overglide a bit so the oncoming swimmer will have time to end up behind me?
In all likelihood I will need to whack my right hand against the lane line a couple times per length so as to give enough space to the others (sorry to disappoint you Donal, but my wingspan is a mere 1m82 … but I still take more space doing fly than if I were to (somehow) swim sideways with my head-to-feet axis perpendicular to the lane). Occasionally my left hand will be high up in the air trying to pick apples while my left “wing” will resemble that of a little duckling. Not pretty, but at least there’ll be no blood in the water.
It’s an easy rule to summarize, but it’s really powerful. Just know your surroundings, know what’s going on around you, and most of the time you’ll be alright.
The third rule of BIAPL is that you won’t be able to take every single stroke in the mighty butterfly style, so get over it already. There will necessarily be times when you have to switch to freestyle for a few strokes. But that’s not a biggie, especially because it gives you the chance to … count … something … else! Yipee! You’re already keeping track of the distance you swam, the remaining one, your average pace for each set and the number of times people have pushed off right in front of you, now let me introduce the fly/fc ratio.
What is the fly/fc ratio?
Quite simply, the fly/fc ration describes the amount of butterflying in your butterfly sets. 100% means that you didn’t need to use the one-arm stroke even once while 50% indicates that it must have been a bloody battlefield out there and that maybe you’d have been better off doing something else, like kicking perhaps?
Calculating the ratio is very easy: imagine your average stroke count is 20 strokes per 25m in front crawl. You start a casual 1000m butterfly and end up using a total of 90 strokes of f/c in order to pass people of avoid accidentally punching them in the head (or worse, if you have paddles on, something reminiscent of the French Revolution … the Swedes have hidden their royal family since I moved to Sweden). You will have swum approximately 112.5m of f/c and 887.5m of fly, hence a ratio of 89%. Not bad!
You can also use this ratio to calculate you actual “butterfly speed” over such a set, but I’ll let you do the math.
The fourth rule of BIAPL is embrace the moment. Have fun, you’re flying after all. You’re bringing magic to this world, you’re inspiring people, at the very least a young Arnie, for two strokes or more.
And remember the (poor) haiku:
Both arms over head Then glide deep under water Archimedes will help.
Otherwise, training is going well, getting faster, stronger and better looking by the day.
Last year on New Year’s day I wrote about my thoughts of the coming year. I’m haven’t done a retrospective, if you follow the blog, you have a good idea of what happened. I originally just thought I might just round-up some of my favourite photos that I took during the year which then led to this series of My Swimming Life 2012. This is the end of that series, with the first of two parts, of my favourite photos from the year.
This site has meant I have gradually become more concerned with getting appropriate and useful images. This year I was fortunate to capture a few that I really like. There are black and white versions of a few of these in the Kindle Screensaver post, but here are medium resolution colour images, (good enough for screen-savers). Some of these I haven’t shared at all previously. I did discover over the course of this series that I’d taken more good shots than I’d realised and discovered a couple I hadn’t realised at the time, which was why I did my 2012 swimming locations, some faces of 2012, and the two posts on my Almost favourites of 2012.
I have high-resolution versions of all of these suitable for printing at larger sizes. This isn’t a commercial site, but should you like a high-resolution printed print of any of these, contact me directly and you can purchase any and we’ll out how to get prints to you.
I’ll start with dawn in the English Channel, leaving Dover and Shakespeare beach.
Next of course is Trent Grimsey, on the way to setting the new English Channel world record. I doubt I’ll ever take a better swimming photo. Everything was right, the position, the light, the sense of motion,and of course, Trent helped with that Mona Lisa smile! I’m proud of this photo.
Lisa came over for one weekend of horrible summer weather, and I took that one great shot with my Kodak PlaySport, swimming out to Brown’s Island, rain on calm water.
Alan Clack was here twice this year, in preparation for his English Channel solo. The weekend before we left for Dover, we climbed up to Coumshingaun for some cold water training beneath the 1000 foot tall cliffs. Since then I’ve noticed that Coumshingaun is being used as the backdrop for one of The Gathering advertising posters.
Another I took that day in Coumshingaun I was also pleased with, that will make any swimmer want to take a dip there, t he blue sky reflected across the glacial corrie.
And of course I went to Manhattan for MIMS 2012 where I took possibly one of the best photos I’ve captured. And without having a tripod. So we’ll pause here and return with the last seven in the next post.
Continuing the series I started with the Swimming Locations of 2012, followed by Swimming 2012 Continuing the Pictorial Tour, this is the second post of “runners-up” for my favourite photos of the year. And a rename of the series, people seem to be enjoying, very gratifying for my moderate skills. There will be two more, of what I think are my best/favourite photos from 2012. You know what they say, just keep taking photos.
An unoriginal photo, but a nice contrast of colours and high tide of the Dover shingle I mentioned in the last post.
The Fermoy Fish is making quite a few appearances in this series. Looking over the Channel and Folkestone Harbour in the late evening. I think in 2012 Owen appreciated the magnitude of his Channel solo, when he became (and still is) Ireland’s youngest ever Channel swimmer. He’s also a very experienced crew person whom I can’t recommend highly enough. On the horizon is Dungeness Nuclear Power Station, rarely visible from Varne, where Lisa Cummins became the first (and only) person ever to land on her second lap of the Channel. Not even Kevin Murphy, who has done just about everything Channel-wise, has landed there.
I’ve taken quite a few photos of the local traditional design Knocknagow fishing boats, an easy local subject that just keeps giving. Clinker-built with a flat bottom, as the river is tidal up past Carrick-on-Suir with lots of mud flats. They often sit idle in the estuary in the winter, filling with rain, and often even sink, only to be refloated and repainted in the spring.
I have taken many iterations of this same photograph over the years, one of my other favourite places on Earth, the Skellig Island, last vestige of Europe, twelve miles off the Irish south-west coast, here framed by the twin chimneys of a ruined cottage in Finian’s Bay. I probably took 30 or 40 photos on the day I took this one. To add to all the others over the years.
Shooting directly into the setting sun above the ruins of the Cornish Engine House situated on the cliff top at Tankardstown, above the old deep copper mining shafts. To get the sun and ruins silhouette, I had to use a high ISO, so there’s a lot of noise (grain). It came out as I wanted, though this is another subject that I revisit.
Clouds are rarely worth taking. But some days seem dramatically perfect for aerial shots, with a calm sea beneath. Tramore bay in the autumn.
From that summer storm post again, I was pleased with the candid fun nature of this photo.
Dover has three lighthouses within the harbour, one at each side of the harbour mouth, (the northern one seen in the blog banner), and this one is on the end of the Prince of Wales pier. The curved nature of the small lighthouse helps reduce the photographic no-no of converging perpendiculars usually associated with taking high building from ground level.
One thing I am (very slowly) learning about photography, is to the chase the light, particularly early morning and late evening. Harder in the northern latitude when the days can be up to 18 hours long and I don’t really like getting up very early.
I wrote on the marathonswimmers.org forum that I’d long wanted to get a good shot of ZC2 as it was one of my original ideas for the name of this website. I didn’t choose it as a name because it was too esoteric, too easy to mixup in casual conversation. ZC2 is a key waypoint for Channel solos. Being too far north/outside of it, as you sweep south-easterly on the ebb tide, means you will likely miss the Cap after the tide turns. I took this during Alan Clack’s Solo, he was within metres of it, whipping past it metres every second with the tide, passing on the inside. The day wasn’t perfect for my ultimate ZC2 shot, but it will suffice. A lot of the time I imagine a shot I want while no-where or no-when near the subject, then have to chase it.
We know and talk about the English Channel marine traffic. Many swimmers will have big ship or two pass within a couple of hundred metres. But as you look out from Varne or the Cap, that traffic volume isn’t readily obvious, distance and haze and light obscuring it. This photo was taken with a 200mm telezoom just before a late dawn on a November Sunday morning on the Varne cliffs, of the traffic outside Calais. I rarely find a use for the zoom, as my eldest, a much better photographer than I warned me, but when you need it, it’s invaluable.
Cap Gris Nez is directly across from Varne, often visible. Once again the telezoom before dawn shows the middle of the Strait and the far side traffic, directly in front of the Cap and the radar station on the Cap itself. Foreshortening diminishes the width of the Separation Zone, at its narrowest point in front of the Cap of about a mile width, and seen here graphically between the northeastward-bound and southwestward-bound ships.
I have a great fondness/weakness for photos of shadows and light on the sea, caused by clouds and/or under-exposure. Just an occasional time, some of them work. In truth, I love almost any kind of photo of the sea.
You know, people buy cheap prints in TK Maxx and Home Furnishing stores to put on their walls and everyone has the same ones, the Brooklyn Bridge, a random beach, whatever. Contact me and you can get an original canvas print for yourself!
Swimming Manhattan. Dee took a photo of my and kayaker Brian swimming down the Hudson that I have a liking for, I’ll always think of it, (whimsically), as swimming toward the Emerald City.
This is a bench erected at Varne Ridge, following an idea from Rob Bohane, by friends and members of Sandycove Island swimming club, in memory of Páraic Casey.
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.
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).
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.
During the fifth hour, Trent and Damián had discussed when Damián would come in as support swimmer. Trent requested Damián for the last hour. Around this time Mike also told Trent to take a double-concentration feed for his next feed, “for a boost” but Trent didn’t want to so do. Some further discussion ensued with Harley and Mike, and it was decided Damián would hold off a while into the last hour before joining in Trent.
Late in the fifth hour the Grey Nose, Cap Gris Nez, became visible to me on the opposite starboard side of the boat, in the South West, and I pointed it out to Harley and Damián, showing them that we were taking a curving southwesterly path. I tried to make sure Trent saw me pointing, though I guessed he would not know I was pointing at the Cap.
A Channel swimmer always feels like they are swimming straight ahead, so it’s difficult to comprehend their position or simply easy to forget the angles that are actually involved, especially when the swimmer gets tired and cognition is not as sharp.
The swimmer, even a swimmer as fast as Trent, is actually also travelling sideways, though it feels like a directly forward progression. When people look at a Channel chart, they imagine the swimmer’s line as a meandering but always forward direction. Humans are pattern recognition experts, in any picture of a directional line that we see, we project that the line terminates in an arrow. Even Trent, with a flatter trajectory across the Strait than almost all swimmers, was travelling sideways as well as forwards by the time he started to approach the Cap.
The haze and fog were slipping away astern, and the sky was again mostly blue, with high wispy cirrus clouds. With the Cap in sight to the crew, every Channel swimmer will tell you; this is the tough part of the swim. When you have to dig in, and to dig deep. The Channel’s challenges compress into this area, west, south and north of the Cap.
There is the real battlefield, there is the heart of the English Channel.
Early in the sixth hour, just before noon, Mike gave Trent and crew another way-point check from Petar Stoychev’s AIS chart. Trent was still 600 metres ahead. And not just a way check but Mike Oram’s unique coaching input, “get your arse in gear and stop fucking around, and bloody swim“.
What helped more was that at this stage Mike also relayed to Trent that Petar Stoychev was calling regularly, every 30 minutes. But the team knew that Stoychev back-ended his swims, as Trent and Damián had raced him many times, and that he was stronger toward the end. From here on it was possible, even probable, that Trent would start to lose his lead, that the invisible and to some invincible, Stoychev would start to eat into Trent’s lead. Trent was not just swimming against a ghost, but against the past, against a swim that had already happened. Petar Stoychev, ten times consecutive FINA Grand Prix Number One and World Champion, who allegedly has his English Channel Record time printed on many of his clothes.
During the first half of the sixth hour Mike Oram and crew started cooking, the aroma of a frying lunch drifted aft, where I was getting hungry. (My method for seafaring is to not eat, just to be sure. After surviving the bedlam of Viking Princess and the return after Alan Clack’s Solo the previous day, I had another data point experience that tells me I don’t get seasick. But I never want to take the chance of messing-up someone else’s swim, so I don’t eat much for about twelve hours before the swim and only ginger biscuits during the swim). The water was flat, the boat was stable, and I was starving, with nothing but ship’s biscuits while Gallivant‘s crew were tucking into a fry-up). Soon a smell of burning drifted back also, and Trent, by now feeling better, demonstrated his improved state by asking Damián if he’s burnt the toast. Good to see the humour back in him. Meanwhile, Mike Oram washed down his fried lunch with a chocolate ice-cream, a mixture more typical of a Channel swimmer!
For a while, the team’s vocal encouragement had been growing ever stronger. Damián had produced a plastic red coach’s whistle and had been using it with increasing frequency, pun intended. When Damián was busy talking to Mike, Owen, Harley or I used it. When we weren’t blowing the whistle we were hooting and shouting. Trent’s stroke rate had been rising and by end of the sixth hour, he was at 78 strokes per minute, up from the 64 strokes per minute he had started on.
Harley would shout “Hup”, I would hoot or shout “go”, Owen would interject with “Go Trent” and Damián would do everything. I’d learned long ago that a higher-pitched wordless shout, literally almost the word hoot vocalised, carries well over water, and if you timed it or “Go” or “Hup” with Trent’s predictable metronomic stroke, he could hear it on every breath and he would feed off it.
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.
Right here, with only seven people present watching, one of the biggest sporting events of the year, certainly the most important anywhere in the world that day, the English Channel Record, was teetering. But the gap had narrowed and the tension was rising in everyone. With the last hour to go, we no longer knew if Trent would make it. We didn’t have time to update people by Twitter more, leaving long awkward silences for those following.
In the final hour, we saw a Coast Guard cutter approaching astern. The French Government does not like, encourage, support or allow Channel Swimming and has been known to interfere with occasional swims to deter our lunatic pursuit. Would this be one of the rare times this would happen? Passports ready, I Tweeted.
There were more messages. Most encouraging, many exhorting Trent. Some humorous, an occasional humorous and/or crude one. Harley related to Trent a reminder of what he’d told a FINA friend and friend, the worst insult he could think of in the English Language. I shall leave it to your imagination.
We’re nearly there. Nearly at the Cap and the final stretch of the swim.