Tag Archives: Gallivant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last daylight shot 7th hour 4pm IMG_8826.resized

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

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

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

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

Last feed I IMG_8879.resized

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

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

Night Flying
The Greater Night Flying Butterfly

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

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

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

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

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

Alone in the dark
Alone in the dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not far feed IMG_8881.resized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not easy. But it was great.

Sylle & Greta & sponsor IMG_8967.resized
Sylvain & Greta

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

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

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

The Flying Frenchman IMG_8963 gmp.resized

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

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

Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 2

Part 1.

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

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

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

Busy day in Dover
Busy day in Dover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe Sadler & Mike Ball
Zoe Sadler & Mike Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy with the rules
Happy with the rules

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

Dover Harbour Entrance IMG_0196

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to Part 3.

How To Select a Channel pilot & boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. How does the boat handle in rough water ?

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

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

5. What ancillary utilities are on the boat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course it’s not all about the boat.

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

8: Association fee

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

9. Pilot fee and deposit requirements and payment options

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

10. Cancellation/No swim/weathered out refunds

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

EC Pilot checklist

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

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

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5.

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

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

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

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

2.7 k in 45 minutes required.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insert an Irishman giving directions joke here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trent Grimsey is the new English Channel Record Holder.

He is not done yet.

Get your arse in gear 6h5m.resized

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

Part 1.  Part 2.  Part 3.  Part 4.

France is barely visible in the distance.

During the fifth hour, Trent and Damián had discussed when Damián would come in as support swimmer. Trent requested Damián for the last hour. Around this time Mike also told Trent to take a double-concentration feed for his next feed, “for a boost” but Trent didn’t want to so do. Some further discussion ensued with Harley and Mike, and it was decided Damián would hold off a while into the last hour before joining in Trent.

Take a double feed

Late in the fifth hour the Grey Nose, Cap Gris Nez, became visible to me on the opposite starboard side of the boat, in the South West, and I pointed it out to Harley and Damián, showing them that we were taking a curving southwesterly path.  I tried to make sure Trent saw me pointing, though I guessed he would not know I was pointing at the Cap.

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

A Channel  swimmer always feels like they are swimming straight ahead, so it’s difficult to comprehend their position or simply easy to forget the angles that are actually involved, especially when the swimmer gets tired and cognition is not as sharp.

The swimmer, even a swimmer as fast as Trent, is actually also travelling sideways, though it feels like a directly forward progression. When people look at a Channel chart, they imagine the swimmer’s line as a meandering but always forward direction. Humans are pattern recognition experts,  in any picture of a directional line that we see, we project that the line terminates in an arrow. Even Trent, with a flatter trajectory across the Strait than almost all swimmers, was travelling sideways as well as forwards by the time he started to approach the Cap.

The haze and fog were slipping away astern, and the sky was again mostly blue, with high wispy cirrus clouds. With the Cap in sight to the crew, every Channel swimmer will tell you; this is the tough part of the swim. When you have to dig in, and to dig deep. The Channel’s challenges compress into this area, west, south and north of the Cap.

There is the real battlefield, there is the heart of the English Channel.

Early in the sixth hour, just before noon, Mike gave Trent and crew another way-point check from Petar Stoychev’s AIS chart. Trent was still 600 metres ahead. And not just a way check but Mike Oram’s unique coaching input, “get your arse in gear and stop fucking around, and bloody swim“.

What helped more was that at this stage Mike also relayed to Trent that Petar Stoychev was calling regularly, every 30 minutes. But the team knew that Stoychev back-ended his swims, as Trent and Damián had raced him many times, and that he was stronger toward the end. From here on it was possible, even probable, that Trent would start to lose his lead, that the invisible and to some invincible, Stoychev would start to eat into Trent’s lead. Trent was not just swimming against a ghost, but against the past, against a swim that had already happened. Petar Stoychev, ten times consecutive FINA Grand Prix Number One and World Champion, who allegedly has his English Channel Record time printed on many of his clothes.

Mike Oran giving his unique coaching input

During the first half of the sixth hour Mike Oram and crew started cooking, the aroma of a frying lunch drifted aft, where I was getting hungry. (My method for seafaring is to not eat, just to be sure. After surviving the bedlam of Viking Princess and the return after Alan Clack’s Solo the previous day, I had another data point experience that tells me I don’t get seasick. But I never want to take the chance of messing-up someone else’s swim, so I don’t eat much for about twelve hours before the swim and only ginger biscuits during the swim). The water was flat, the boat was stable, and I was starving, with nothing but ship’s biscuits while Gallivant‘s crew were tucking into a fry-up). Soon a smell of burning drifted back also, and Trent, by now feeling better, demonstrated his improved state by asking Damián if he’s burnt the toast. Good to see the humour back in him. Meanwhile, Mike Oram washed down his fried lunch with a chocolate ice-cream, a mixture more typical of a Channel swimmer!

Trent at 5 hours and 30 minutes

For a while, the team’s vocal encouragement had been growing ever stronger. Damián had produced a plastic red coach’s whistle and had been using it with increasing frequency, pun intended. When Damián was busy talking to Mike, Owen, Harley or I used it. When we weren’t blowing the whistle we were hooting and shouting. Trent’s stroke rate had been rising and by end of the sixth hour, he was at 78 strokes per minute, up from the 64 strokes per minute he had started on.

Harley would shout “Hup”, I would hoot or shout “go”, Owen would interject with “Go Trent” and Damián would do everything. I’d learned long ago that a higher-pitched wordless shout, literally almost the word hoot vocalised, carries well over water, and if you timed it or “Go”  or “Hup” with Trent’s predictable metronomic stroke, he could hear it on every breath and he would feed off it.

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

Trent responded with another increase in stroke rate.

At about six hours, before 1 P.M.,Trent had another feed, it took two seconds, his feeds hadn’t gotten any slower. Apart from a very occasional one which took 6 seconds, Owen and I estimated the average feed time as 4 seconds. We were not to know it was to be his last feed, so we never got to say the Magic Words, “this is your last feed” to him.

Swimmers reading this are doing the calculation. The fast ones are saying that’s no problem. The fast ones are forgetting he was still swimming across the tide and had been swimming at a 5k pace for five hours. The average or slower ones are thinking that it was only five and half hours in, a lot of swimmers don’t even have to dig in until eight or nine or ten hours have elapsed.

As the character Eldon Tyrell says in Blade Runner: “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long. And you have burned so very bright.” Trent was swimming on the edge. Speed versus burnout, distance versus time, failure versus glory. All were out on the line, out on the water.

Last feed

Right here, with only seven people present watching, one of the biggest sporting events of the year, certainly the most important anywhere in the world that day, the English Channel Record, was teetering. But the gap had narrowed and the tension was rising in everyone. With the last hour to go, we no longer knew if Trent would make it. We didn’t have time to update people by Twitter more, leaving long awkward silences for those following.

French Coast Guard Cutter

In the final hour, we saw a Coast Guard cutter approaching astern. The French Government does not like, encourage, support or allow Channel Swimming and has been known to interfere with occasional swims to deter our lunatic pursuit. Would this be one of the rare times this would happen? Passports ready, I Tweeted.

There were more messages. Most encouraging, many exhorting Trent. Some humorous, an occasional humorous and/or crude one. Harley related to Trent a reminder of what he’d told a FINA friend and friend, the worst insult he could think of in the English Language. I shall leave it to your imagination.

We’re nearly there. Nearly at the Cap and the final stretch of the swim.

On to the Final Part.

Swimming into the 5th hour.resized

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

Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

Message to Trent

All this time, we’d been in a race, Trent, the crew, Gallivant. Though there were other Solos out that day, including Chloë McCardel‘s second three-way record attempt, (she made it to about two hours into the third leg) Trent’s race was with a ghost, or shall I say, ghostly presence. Not an actual shade but an avatar of Petar Stoychev who was always there, in the presence of his previous record swim track which was visible on the AIS screen inside the cabin, visible to the Channel Chat group on the couple of updates that Mike Oram sent out. And Petar Stoychev was ringing Mike Oram every hour, a lot of direct interest for someone who apparently didn’t think Trent had a chance before the start.

After reporting that he was feeling flat at about the third hour, Trent called for caffeine in his next feed and requests more cheering from the crew. This was another difference visible to me in how a world champion operates. I’d imagine that if I ask you to cheer for me, it’ll have no effect, since I instigated it. Trent however requested the cheering and yet still responded. You could see immediately that he was enjoying it.

Jumping back, just before two hours elapsed, Mike Oram had sent an email to the Channel Chat group, reporting briefly on Trent’s progress. I didn’t see it but I did see the next update from him later on my phone and I showed Harley and told him I hadn’t seen something like this previously on the group, that Mike is probably taking the Trent’s progress really seriously.

Trent swam fine through the third hour with no further reports of feeling off, flying across the North East Shipping lane.

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

At four hours and fifteen minutes, Trent’s mother sent a message which Damián relayed, and which features later in many of the Australian media broadcasts. It’s a lot of words for Trent to have to read, but Damián can get the whiteboard right in front of Trent’s face, as he has been doing previously, and Trent can read it over the course of a many strokes.

Message from Trent’s mother

I’d used this method on Gabor’s Solo two years previously, rather than trying to relay a long message during a feed, hold the whiteboard in place and give the swimmer plenty of time to read it. It only works in flat water, when the gunwale and message board are low, but it works well for that.

During the fourth hour, the haze had thickened further to fog, and the world shrank around us. Some sun and patches of blue sky remained about us and Trent swam through  occasional vibrant pools of light in a larger sea of grey and into the fifth hour, still seven minutes ahead of Petar Stoychev.

But that gradually changed, and I found myself looking around at the horizon more, watching the weather as our world, even on the boat, shrank. For the Channel swimmer, the world is a dichotomy, always both small and huge at the same time. Small with the boat, the crew, eyes a centimetre above the surface, everything is near, the circle of world contracted. Huge with the slowness of the progress, the water, the immensity of the task, catching an occasional glimpse of the Varne Cliffs mast, seemingly immobile at night for hours or worse, glimpsing the Cap Lighthouse. But Trent didn’t even have those irritations, the world grown smaller and duller.

At four hours twenty-five minutes, somewhere astern, a ship’s foghorn called out.

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

Now’s the hard bit“.

Every Channel swimmer knows this, it just usually takes the rest of us much longer to swim to this point. Channel swimmers say that “you swim to the start of the real swim”, or “you swim and you swim, until you get tired or exhausted. Then the Channel starts“.

During that fifth hour we noticed that Trent’s superlative stroke was suffering slightly, but only to the extent that he was keeping his left arm straight on recovery. Harley passed a message to Trent to focus on technique and specifically that left arm.

At four hours thirty-five minutes, Trent called for Mike Oram.

Can I do it?” he asked.

Five minutes later Mike responds with “yes, you are still seven minutes ahead“.

Out of the fog, yachts in French water

Throughout the fifth hour, Trent was in a less than equitable mood. Frustration was obvious as he slipped off the bow wave, slipped back a bit more during his feeds, and had to struggle to swim more to get back to and stay on the bow wave. He called for the boat to move forward, to hold pace a few times, to pick up speed.

Afterwards he’s admitted this was the most difficult period, that he lost concentration, that he got annoyed and angry at us, and at the boat crew. He also told us directly during this time that he had cramp. I offered Harley some zero-carb electrolyte I’d brought with me, exactly for this possibility, which I’ve used previously myself and for Alan, but completely understandably, Trent and Damián didn’t want to try it, after all, we all stress to never do anything new in a Channel swim. (And just in case the cramps did get worse, then we could fall back to it).

I have a different view than Trent does of the fifth hour. To my mind, he never behaved less than well and the small sarkiness is exaggerated in his mind and completely normal for a Channel swim anyway. My own words to my observer and King of the English Channel, Kevin Murphy, written by him in my observer’s Report were: “Fuck France“. Kevin’s response in the report is “I know how Donal feels“.

Even if you are the world number one, the Channel is not going to be easy. (Cue the Channel swimmer’s motto and my much-repeated Chad Hundeby story). I also think it wasn’t entirely his own perception of lack of concentration. During this hour the boat crew changed, Mike Oram was for a while forced  to both helm and navigate, and the throttle was not as constant, and this created difficulties for Trent staying in the bow wave.

Before the end of the fifth hour, I saw Trent miss almost all his lurid red 250ml feed, which hadn’t happened previously, and briefly he looked like a vampire victim. Once is not a concern, but if it was to repeat it could become a problem. Around this time Trent also told Harley and Damián that he wanted Damián to come if for the last hour and a discussion ensues between Harley and Mike and Damián in the wheelhouse.

At the start of the sixth hour the fog lifted again to be come replaced with a warm Channel haze, my worries of the swim being abandoned due to fog (only I had them anyway) dissipating along it. We were in French waters, Trent was swimming well.

The finish, and the Cap, were ahead.

On to Part Five.

3 hours, 7 mins ahead.resized

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

Part 1.

Part 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Strong

Simplicity

Only worry about the things you can control

Rhythm

Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smiling, swimming Trent

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

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

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

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

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

No break in stroke, no time lost.

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

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

On to Part Four.

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

Part 1

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

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

Assembling in Varne Ridge, 3.30am

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

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

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

Harley Connolly, Trent Grimsey, Damian Blaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to Part Three.

Trent Grimsey’s English Channel World Record – Part 1 – From close-up

As some of you know, I was fortunate enough to be crewing aboard Mike Oram’s Gallivant for FINA Grand Prix 2012 Winner Trent Grimsey‘s English Channel Record. And I know you want the details. How did that happen and what did I (we, Owen O’Keefe, Ireland’s youngest English Channel Soloist, aka the Fermoy Fish was with me) see and learn? Yes, I will talk about feeding!

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So how does an ordinary swimmer in the middle who talks crap of nowhere end up on the boat of the World Number 1 on his English Channel record-breaking attempt?

In the spring, Channel Junkies became aware that FINA Grand Prix circuit swimmer and Australian Trent Grimsey announced his intention to attempt to claim the most hallowed record in marathon and Channel swimming, the English Channel. I was intrigued, it seemed both an audacious and even arrogant statement to make, given the fickleness of the Channel, its notoriously unpredictable weather and how most of us Channel swimmers take the weather we are given, if we are lucky. Many go home without a swim. As Irish Channel two times Soloist Jim Boucher said to me in relation to something else, “if The White Horse had a wall for fast swimmers who didn’t make it, it would be a very long and full wall“.

A record attempt, well, that requires not only a great swimmer, a world-class open water swimmer, but the weather and tide to line up also and the right pilot. And courage, audacity, self-belief and preparation.

The record holder was Bulgarian Petar Stoychev, a force in open water swimming for more than ten years. Olympian, multiple FINA world champion, with an astonishing time of six hours fifty-seven minutes and fifty-five seconds, the first to go under seven hours. The story of his swim and of other almost swims of Christof Wandratch and Yuri Kudinov are the stuff of Channel legends. To put it in context, the average Channel crossing time is fourteen hours, and under twelve hours is considered very fast.

I was following Trent on Twitter and I made direct contact with him in June, asking him for a guest article for here, and Trent agreed. Trent’s hectic global travel and racing schedule made it difficult for him to get it finished (Hey swimmers, have a look at that lead-in schedule). And of course now he’s promised me a different one! He emailed me a couple of weeks ago to say he was Dover-bound and maybe we’d meet. A friend of mine said to me “less blogging, more swimming” recently. The same friend texted me when I was on the boat, “lucky b*stard“. I think it’s safe to say, the blog is working out, when I consider all the swimmers I’ve talked to or met.

As it turned out, Trent and his coach Harley Connolly were staying in Varne Ridge when Alan Clack, Owen and I arrived for Alan’s Solo Attempt. And Varne Ridge is home-from-home for me. Once I heard he was there I went over for a chat, and we had a few chats over the following days. Trent was training twice daily on Dover pool, with a sea swim every three of four days, so different than most of us. That made me nervous. Trent signed my marathon swimmer’s book. {Yeah, I’ve never mentioned the book before. Some of you know about it, and I’ll come back to it at a future date}. Trent and Harley had their first meeting with Mike Oram on Wednesday, and we spoke afterwards. In fact Owen and I parked the car right behind them on Dover Prom, not realising it was them, it looked like a serious stalking attempt. Afterwards I had a look at the weather for them and told them, based on my moderate experience, that Saturday the 8th of September would likely be best of their visible window for a record attempt, Mike having also indicated Friday as a possibility. After that Trent asked if I would consider joining the crew and I said I would, but only dependent on me not being busy with Alan, either in preparation or crewing , as he was my primary responsibility. On Wednesday night Trent’s support swimmer, FINA 2012 Grand Prix four-times Runner-Up Damién Blaum from Argentina, arrived and their team was complete.

You ever wonder what the World’s Top Two FINA marathons swimmers are like? Like me have you heard the stories of overpaid football players with no decorum or respect for others and wondered if a consequence of being elite among elite sportspeople? It certainly not the case with Trent, Damien or Harley, a world-class elite coach. Outgoing, friendly, respectful of others, and happy to talk. No sense of being too good to talk to ordinary Channel swimmers or the Aspirants around Varne Ridge. Varne Ridge is for Channel swimmers, Aspirants, Soloist and unsuccessful, and is very much part of  the Channel journey for everyone.

Trent, Owen & Donal in Varne Ridge

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Alan, Owen and I met with the legendary CSA pilot Reg Brickell, Alan’s pilot, who immediately indicated we would be swimming on Friday, (with excellent conditions forecast by my view).

After some humming and hawing, on Thursday evening the final decision was made by Reg and Alan to swim Friday and we were busy with preparation.

We left Varne at 2.30am on Friday morning  and returned successful about 6.30pm Friday evening, after a tough day at sea for the crew as well as Alan, Viking Princess being a boat for experienced crew only, causing me to liken our return journey, with Jim Boucher & I literally tied to the wheelhouse, to an episode of Deadliest Catch.

A discussion with the team confirmed the start time on Saturday morning, Trent and crew had been following Alan’s swim via the Sandycove GPS Spot tracker and mine and Owen’s updates, and were sufficiently intrigued by the various mentions of shipping lanes, Separation Zone, feeds and finish so they repeated their offer for me to come out, and I asked if Owen could join, given he also has significant Channel crew experience, more than me this year, and the team agreed without hesitation. We were to meet at 3am on Saturday morning.

Only a couple of hours of sleep were had, and twenty-four hours later at about 3.30am, Owen and I were once again filling a Thermos with hot water and loading a car and heading for Dover marina.