That Sunday morning of late September was overcast and dull as Sylvain undulated away from Shakespeare beach almost parallel to the kilometre-long Admiralty Pier. There was a light Force Two breeze ruffling the water surface, which was a slightly cooler than hoped for 15.1 degrees Celsius.
It is always important, vital even, to grasp the environmental parameters both predicted and in operation, to really understand any Channel swim. Like mountaineers and adventurers, marathon swimmer’s comrades-in-spirit, we are aware that we operate in an arena and world greater than we are, greater than we can be, and that we at best negotiate our way through. A weather prediction is the battle plan and the old adage about battle plans is that they rarely survive first contact with the enemy. (If this was a badly-made movie, we’d be arriving at the voice-over narration for the boring exposition):
Sylle’s wait had moved him from a neap to a spring tide, and not the edge of a spring but a big 6.8 metre tide bringing with it a bigger tidal current. His weather window meant he and the other swimmers departing that morning were doing so on a low tide. The preferable tide for leaving Dover is a neap high tide. Swimmers leaving Dover take advantage of the flood to get pushed north-east, the first leg of the more usual “backwards-S” chart. Leaving on low tide doesn’t negate the tidal current assistance or increase the distance, but changes the heading, swimming south-east instead. The pilot must still plan the approach to the Cap and consider the changes in wind direction.
The weather forecast was for light breezes for the morning, slackening a bit in the afternoon and early evening. The swim would start cloudy but skies might clear to patchy in the afternoon. Not very warm, but not chilly either, most important for Sylle as any direct sunlight is a boon for a swimmer, reducing heat loss and sunlight can lift a swimmer, and give mental energy. Bathing both literally and metaphorically in vivid mid-day sunlight, even as the wind rose, is one of my favourite Channel memories.
The night’s forecast was more opaque. Possibly mixed clouds and clear skies. Clear skies mean lower temperatures but increase visibility for a swimmer, a trade-off that cannot be chosen and can only be evaluated as it is underway. Also important is the fact that a late in September swim means shorter cooler daylight hours. A morning swim start instead of night start means that a swimmer will be swimming into night, a veil that obscures the latter toughest part of a swim, whereas a night swim holds a promise of dawn and hours of daylight for a swimmer.
The other boats were almost out before Sylle, a couple of hundred metres ahead, all to our starboard side, the same as Sylvain. (Oh, that reminds me, I spent the day, when we had time, which wasn’t much, trying to teach Lisa Cummins (PHD!) about port and starboard. I am not sure if I succeeded). Only CSA pilot Reg Brickell’s Viking Princess was astern of us, about a kilometre back.
Sylle’s information to Mike had included the fact that his stroke rate was 24 to 28. Open water swimmers and long-term readers here will know I often speak of the importance of stroke rate for open water thermogenesis, (heat-production). Front crawl Channel swimmers vary in rate from typically low sixties to high eighties, depending on size, stroke type and training most importantly. Sylvain’s stroke rate looks low in comparison, but of course it was a different stroke, the whole body movement of butterfly.
The ruffled water off Shakespeare beach presented no obstacle to his stroke as we moved away from the beach, the well-wishes staying until we ceased to notice them. After about 20 minutes we moved outside the sheltering mass of the Admiralty Pier and into open water, the fleet just ahead and starboard of us. As we passed the pier terminus, we could see the tide line just ahead, the interface of the current and the water making for a choppy transition. Within ten minutes the fleet spread out, caught sooner by the tide than us, they pulled away. However ten minutes later, at 10:15 we passed into the transition and by 10.25, the choppy transition water at the tide’s edge required Sylvain to stop a couple of times to reseal his goggles, but we were into the ebbing tide, following the fleet, catching the ocean conveyor south-east and out, out into the Channel.
Sylvain’s first feed was at 10.45, after an hour, taking a 500 ml bottle of maltodextrin (carbs) and apple juice. The feed schedule called for hourly feeds for the first three hours, then feeds ever thirty minutes, the carbs mixed for taste with either apple juice or blackcurrent cordial, alternating, for four cycles, then a feed of electrolytes, with dilute mouth wash every two hours.
The morning continued grey and overcast with the breeze shifting through Force Two and during the early swim we moved all the supplies under the poop deck canvas cover. Cloudy and dry, the air was nonetheless laden with salt and moisture, such that we all stayed fairly covered and found impossible, for the entire day, to have dry hands, the marine moisture clinging to skin.
Ninety minutes into the swim Sylle had stopped to adjusted his googles a few times more. Unplanned stops are always a cause for concern. Is there something subconscious in the swimmer’s mind causing the stops or is there a minor problem that could grow with time into a major problem? By 12.30 p.m. we had eventually realised that every time he adjusted he was catching the lip of his swim cap under his gasket-type Aquasphere goggles and not knowing this, which then led to a gradual leak and after we shouted this at him, he finally got the problem sorted before it led to too much brine in the goggles, which will lead to swollen shut eyes.
About an hour after the swim started Mike joined us on the poop deck, (yes, I will keep saying poop deck!). There was a … long
conversation soliloquy from Mike about many different subjects related to Channel swimming; the problems with the organisations, the problems with the committees, the problems with swimmers, the problems with crews, the problems with coaches, the problems with other pilots, the problems with … etc. I was the primary audience, Lisa and Zoe taking the opportunity of a scheduled feed to escape to the bow. Seeing my chance in a lull for air, I asked Mike something I’ve wondered, having read and listened to him many times. I asked him if he liked Channel swimming … The answer, was less than categorical.
By the third hourly feed, the breeze has dropped again ever so slightly, to low force Two, but the sky remained impenetrable. Sylle’s stroke rate was steady averaging 28 strokes per minute. Thirty minutes later at 13:15, three hours and thirty minute elapsed swim time, we swapped to feeds every half hour. It always sounds like one only has to spend two minutes mixing a feed, and a minute feeding, and you will have the rest of the time to lounge around, but once you as crew are on a 30 minute feed cycle, it seems like you have no time for anything else. You might rotate the mixing, feeding and watching duties, or one person might like to do it for a while, as I did for a few hours, and the time is full of discussion of the previous feed, how he looked, how it went in, what the next feed was, the mundanities filling the available time to the brim and suddenly someone has to rush to get the next feed ready.
The breeze dropped to Force One, a whisper, though the surface didn’t glass-off (become still), and the Varne Lightship was visible away to the north-east, in the Shipping Lane which we would enter in the next hour. Not long after the 2 p.m. feed we were passed on the port side by a rowing team heading to Dover. Cross-Channel rowers are no longer allowed into French waters since early in 2013, after having been stopped by the French navy, despite the early teams having french approval, they now row out from Dover to the half-way point, then turn and row back. For Channel swimmers this kind of arbitrary action by the French coastal authorities is always a concern.
It was approaching 2.15 p.m. Sylvain had been swimming butterfly for over four and half hours and had just swum through a large oil slick without pause. We as crew, even though we knew what we going out to see and do, were still awestruck. The weather continued moderate. Did we stop to ask ourselves what was going on in Sylle’s head as we entered the south-west shipping lane?
- How To Select a Channel pilot & boat (loneswimmer.com)
- Marathon & Channel swimming checklist (loneswimmer.com)
- How to – Tides for swimmers (loneswimmer.com)
- How To – The Beaufort wind scale, an essential skill for open water swimmers (loneswimmer.com)
- How To – sample marathon feed schedule (loneswimmer.com)