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

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7 thoughts on “How To Select a Channel pilot & boat

  1. Hello Loneswimmer,
    Thanks for your wonderfull explanation. One of my best friend attempted to cross channel without success.
    I tracked the swimming from tracking page. There was colored boats , after two hours another organization’s boats appared in white boxes. They have good route (shorter than first boats). At the end 2 of them reached the French coast (first one is 12 hours) . My friend’s boat bring him after 18.5 hours near French coast because of angry wind and tides. While i was tracking the boat , I noticed the boat should turn to coast with an angle , at that time all other boats had turned to coast with angle 45 degree.
    Our friend’s coach on the boat ,had told to pilot to turn to coast ,but the pilot had denied with showing screen. What i want to find out , who should decide about route?
    My friend had swum 18.5 hours , he might reached the coast in 12 hours if the pilot track reasonable route.
    I looked at FAQ section on CSA site, but could not find clear explanation about this situation. Would you make this matter clear please.

    Regards,

    Like

    • Hi Attila, I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell you much. The short answer is the pilot absolutely decides the route. Not the Observer and never the swimmer.

      If I had a GPS chart with times, I could tell a bit more. Seeing the other boats turn on the Tracker doesn’t mean much, because the pilots don’t work based on what the other boats are doing. The tide flow around Cap Gris Nez and off Wissant beach is very dependent on exact position. A 500 metre or even 250 metre position difference around the Cap is a huge distance because the tide that flows there is very strong, and the pilot HAS to work the swimmer with the flowing tide and they have to base the direction on the swimmer’s current speed. When boats are turning to France it usually means they are in the tidal flow and if a boat isn’t turning it may be because they are too far out and if they turn too soon they will get washed parallel to the shore without getting in. The pilot decides the route, the swimmer cannot tell the right way. To the swimmer it looks like the pilot is taking them the wrong direction (I’ve seen this happen) where land is on their left hand side but the pilot is heading them away from the Cap. This is to try to take advantage of the turning tide, which will then assist the swimmer.

      You said “My friend had swum 18.5 hours , he might reached the coast in 12 hours if the pilot track reasonable route”. This is very unlikely. 12.5 hours is fast enough and would have resulted in a good line across the Channel. Then the pilot has to aim the swimmer for where the tide will turn and bring them in.

      Could the pilot have made a mistake? It’s certainly possible and it has happened, but it’s impossible to say what happened without knowing more detail. Your friend can request the Observer’s log which will really along with the GPS tell what happened. I hope this helps.

      Like

      • Thanks for your quick answer Loneswimmer. I do not want to blame pilot, of course they have good knowledge about the specific sea and weather at the channel. I mean if coach of the swimmer wants quick turn to coast to make the line shorter , pilot has two option of course , goes as he knows , or goes as coach’s said. Which one should be normally?
        You can look at the track from here ;
        http://cspf.co.uk/swim-routes
        ansatasia 11th August.
        Thanks for your valuable information.

        Like

        • Well, looking at that chart it seems more clear. In that circumstance, the coach would have been absolutely wrong and it wouldn’t have been possible to take a short line to the coast. Your swimmer was going with the ebb tide, and would not have been able to swim across the tide from that far out. Most people do not understand the strength of the Channel tides. They travel at 4 to 6 knots which is faster than the quicker swimmer can swim.

          Similarly, what happened later was that the tide turned and your friend hadn’t swum far enough. The turning tide would have swept the swimmer NE up the channel but at a distance of kilometres out while the coast moved away, and again, no way across the tide. If the tide turn had happened while the swimmer was further north, the swimmer might have made it in, after another 5 to 6 hours of swimming, but they weren’t far North enough so the only possible chance would have been to swim through two more tides, another 11 to 12 hours of swimming, which would have broken the record for longest channel solo ever. But in the case of the previous longest solo swim, they had expected and prepared for that and aimed for a different spot. It looks to me like the pilot made the correct decision.

          I hope this helps understand the situation. The Channel is a beast, and an unforgiving one.

          Like

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