The bond of the English Channel

Satellite view of the English Channel

Image via Wikipedia

It was difficult to decide what to write about today. Do I pull out a “here’s one I made earlier” post? Do I just write about swimming this week with friend and English Channel Soloist Ciáran Byrne? Finish the Beginish post or something else?

It was similar last year after Rob’s EC attempt. I really don’t want to talk about a friend who suffered. I couldn’t write about Rob’s swim at all, it hurt the rest of us too much, we have so much respect and love for him.

English Channel soloists form a bond of respect . I can (and have) sat and happily talked for a long time with others I’ve never met previously who been out there and know the truth of it. I’ve never met a Channel soloist who didn’t come back without an awe of the Channel and a deep and abiding respect for other soloists. Only soloists, successful or otherwise, and those closest to them know what it is like out there. Something I really hate now (apart the obvious problems with the world) are those who are disrespectful of Channel swimmers without even having any idea of what it’s really like (and I written about this before). And funnily enough, it’s not that I actually care what they may say or think about me, (I feel I have nothing to prove). It’s what they may say about my friends (who probably feel the same) who’ve suffered out there.

There’s a story of Catalina Channel record setter at 16 years old and Open Water World Champion Chad Hundeby. He said that even with all his early successes, other distance swimmers would ask him about his English Channel swim. When he admitted he hadn’t done it, he said, they would generally go quiet and just walk away. He eventually went on to set the Channel record.

The Channel is brutal. I’ve often quoted Lisa’s words about it, as being a mental battlefield, maybe close to the ultimate mental battlefield.

As Alan Clack reminded me recently, the pool is 80% physical, 20% mental. The Channel is 80% physical … and 80% mental.

It’s cold (for most people). But it’s not really that, despite all the talk about it.. It’s the unpredictability of it. You swim for hours. The weather changes incredibly quickly and you may have to swim for longer in rougher water than you’ve trained in, regardless of your training. Then you get tired. Then it gets tough. Then it gets really tough. Tougher than anything you’ve ever done. But that’s not all. You have no real idea what’s going on. You may be incredibly lonely with someone a few metres away from you, but you are separated by an entire world. You have no idea what the tides or tidal currents will bring in the closing stages or in fact when the closing stages will be. The actual mechanics of feeding, vomiting, urinating etc are not the real story.

Talk to a Channel Soloist or Aspirant and they will all repeat the same facts. Less in 135 years than have climbed Mt. Everest in 50 years. That’s shorthand though, trying to find something for you to hang some comprehension on. One Channel swimmer for every ten million people in the world. Less English Channel soloists than Olympic swimmers. 70% failure rate over the 135 years.

This is only the wallpaper we hang to try to explain the house to you. Could you visualise a house from rolls of wallpaper?

Time means nothing out there. Distance means nothing. I’ve met soloists who’ve swam the Channel in 10 hours. I think that’s fantastic. I’ve met soloists who say the Channel isn’t that difficult. I will listen to and respect a soloist who says it but not anyone else. Because only they have earned the right. Every swim is different. That’s the real story amongst those who have been out there. The only thing that counts, the only goal, is standing up in France. The swimmer who goes across in 10 hours gets my deepest level of respect. But I also know that swimmer has no concept of what Lisa or Jackie Cabell or Rob went through, or even me.

I recently heard it repeated that slow swimmers have it easier in the Channel than fast swimmers, which is one of the even more offensive and flat-out incorrect bullshit assertions I’ve ever heard. Fast swimmers how no idea what that struggle entails. A fast swimmer can’t even comprehend Jackie swimming with one arm for 27 hours. Can you imagine what it’s like to swim while you are drowning because of inhaled salt spray? What about a man who swims the Channel … who has no limbs? Can you imagine what it takes to say that a fast swimmer has it tougher than a man with no limbs? But don’t get me wrong, I have many friends who are fast soloists. None of them have said this. Soloist own the Channel. What I mean is every one of us has a unique experience. No two swims are ever the same.

I finished my Channel write-up months ago. But I never put it up here, it’s a gaping omission on the site. To date only four people have read it. It’s still too personal. I prefer the jokes about my swim (truffles for feeds) than displaying the full story.

Let me close with this. In the last 10 years Ireland has become the fourth most successful English Channel country in the world, after the UK, US and Australia. 16 of those are Sandycove swimmers, with more to come. In my admittedly skewed view of the world, these are elite athletes, not because of how fast they may swim or how ripped they may look, but because all these people dedicated themselves to the pursuit of a rare goal.

I’m proud to count so many English Channel soloists and aspirants as friends.

7 thoughts on “The bond of the English Channel

  1. Pingback: Channel and Marathon Swimming Articles Index & adding a Donate to, the world’s most popular open water swimming blog option | LoneSwimmer

  2. Hey Donal, I’d love to read your Channel Swim report. If you want a writer’s/editor’s eyes who is also a swimmer, let me know – you can send it as an email attachment. I have also done triathlon so know something of endurance, though nothing like what you do.


  3. This is such a great descripton of Channel swimming and evey time I return to Dover and meet the Channel swimmers / aspirants I am filled with happiness by the good will and encouragement shared amongst many on the beach and up at Varne Ridge. I myself have both good and bad memories of Channel swims and have learned so much from others but I don’t think you can say anybody has it easy in the EC because everybody has their own very different battles. These challenges might be encountered during the many months/years of preparation, it could be whilst playing the waiting game or for many various reasons on the day(s) of the swim itself. Self belief is the biggest factor! Enjoy your experience. Loving it down in Dover wilst supporting my very good friend, the Gladiator of The Lakes, Thomas Noblett.


  4. Great post Donal. Although I don’t think I’ve met a channel swimmer who ever said that it was ‘easy’ – although have met some who said they really enjoyed it – a different thing I think. Nor have I met a Channel swimmer who said that slower swimmers get it easy (and I’m willing to bet that anyone who said that wasn’t a slow swimmer!). Post your swim report – it’s good for people to know the reality of the swim I think. Warts and all.


  5. I love this ! I want to add this to my sight! I love how you wrote this. Let me know if I can link you sight and future your article on my sight. This is 100% how I feel. Unless your aspiring to swim the channel or have done it no one understands how few there are of us. It’s like the forgotten group. With only a month and a half till I attempted to swim the channel, I never knew how much I would sacrifice and want just to stand on the shore of France.thanks for the inspiration!!


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