In a deviation from the usual whisky posts on this site, I wanted to share my experiences of my English Channel Relay swim from earlier in the summer. Enjoy! Slainte, Kieran - Sept 20th 2019
The SwimTayka English Channel Relay – 1st/2ndAugust 2019
Swimming the English Channel has always been a dream of mine. So much so that last year I finally bit the bullet and have booked in for a solo attempt next year! However, when planning my training for the year ahead, I’d not even considered swimming a relay… but then a fortuitous event occurred!
I’d seen a post on Facebook from Jason Tait of South West Swim offering spaces on a night swim to be conducted in my local lake where most of my training takes place. I immediately signed up thinking A) it would be excellent experience of swimming in the dark, and B) it would help with my cold-water acclimatization. The swim took place at 3:30 am on Saturday 15thJune, when the water temperature was hovering around 14-15 degrees following a cold snap. Prior to the swim, I’d spent a couple of days training with the Durley Sea Swim group in Bournemouth with a bunch of like-minded (i.e. mad!) folk who were at various stages in their Channel swim training regime. It proved to be a valuable experience, not just in terms of time in the water, but also hearing other people’s experiences, advice & journeys. One thing I took away from those two days was that many people in training for a solo had already participated in a relay. So… fast forward to 3am on Saturday 15th, I’m stood slightly bleary eyed with a small group of people on the bank of Lake 32 getting ready for an early morning dip. I introduced myself to Jason, who in turn introduced me to Bryan…
“He’s swum the channel before so might be able to give you some advice”,
“Ace! I’ll be sure to tap him up for some info” I thought.
“He’s also put together a team for a relay in about five week’s time… meet two of the team, Stephen and Richard”,
“Hi chaps! Nice to meet you… tell me more about your relay!”,
“We’re actually a man down and are looking for a sixth member… know anyone who might be interested?!”
I’m paraphrasing slightly, but you can see what I mean now when I mentioned a fortuitous event! After the swim, and after further discussions with Bryan, I was offered the opportunity to join the team which I leapt upon. I had around four weeks to prepare, which on paper would seem to be insufficient but, luckily, I’d already started upping my training for next year’s solo and felt that I was in good enough shape for the relay. The training swim we did that morning also served as my two-hour qualifying swim which was one less thing I had to squeeze in. I booked a medical, set up my fundraising page for the charity and tweaked my training schedule for the coming weeks to ensure I was in the best shape possible for the challenge. Obviously having only four weeks to prepare was quite daunting… would I raise enough money for the charity? Have I had enough cold water, sea swimming experience? How would I fare on the boat?! (It had been a while since I’d been on one… and they’ve been known to make me a little nauseous). In the mean-time, I joined the team on their weekly Sunday evening calls and got to know everyone a little better. I was made to feel very welcome, and felt part of the team within no time at all… as well as the serious chat about how training had gone, or what we might expect on the day, there was always a fair amount of light-hearted banter or messing around which helped with bonding and overall morale.
I’ll fast forward to the swim itself now… we did miss our original window which opened on July 17th because of adverse weather. Whilst at the time this was disappointing and also worrying as we were concerned about everyone’s availability going forward, we only had two wait two weeks before another opportunity opened up for us to attempt our relay. Unfortunately, this did mean that we lost one of our swimmers as Lucy was also booked in on another relay attempt the day before! The five of us decided however that we were happy to continue on the understanding that it would mean more swimming for the rest of us. Something than no one seemed to be worried about which I think goes to show the mental strength of the team and was a testament to the hours of training everyone had put in, thus giving us the confidence in our own abilities.
I’d driven down to Dover with Bryan and we met up with everyone at the harbor car park. This was the first time I’d met Alan and Suzanne in person, and we were all buzzing with nervous anticipation! I think it was around 10pm when we boarded Anastasia and met the pilot Eddie and his crew as well as our CS&PF observer Geoff (his role is to record all aspects of the journey, including the personal details of each swimmer, their stroke rate etc… as was as ensuring we abide by the rules at all times, such as during change overs). We stowed our belongings and eventually set off for Samphire Hoe where our challenge would officially begin. As we pulled in to Samphire Hoe, I notice there were a number of other boats around us… we wouldn’t be the only people attempting to cross the Channel that day. Alan jumped in and swam to the beach and, at the sound of the claxon, he re-entered the water and our relay was officially under way! The time was 11:23 pm.
The format for our relay was that each swimmer spends an hour in the water before changing over. The changeover process is pretty slick… with five minutes remaining, the swimmer is given a warning, they then come in to the back of the boat where the next swimmer jumps in behind them and continues with the swim. Once the second swimmer is in the water and underway, the first swimmer climbs aboard the boat. Whilst not swimming, each participant takes it in turn to support whoever is in the water. So, swimmer #3 looks after swimmer #1, swimmer #4 looks after swimmer #2 and so on. I was the fifth (and final) swimmer in the group, and was looking after swimmer #3 who was Suzanne. I was lucky… Suzanne didn’t need much looking after! At each swim, she happily jumped in and just started churning out the strokes. I remarked on her third swim about how well she kept time… she was like a metronome! her stroke rate never wavered. When she climbed out at the end of each hour, I’d wrap her in her dry robe and make sure she was ok… she always was! After her third swim she had a massive grin on her face and stated she would’ve happily carried on swimming given the opportunity!
My first swim was at 3:23am. I’d had 90 mins or so of rest in the cabin of the boat before coming on deck to support Suzanne, and I did feel a bit green around the gills despite taking some Stugeron before we’d boarded. It suddenly felt very surreal… there I was, stood on the back of the boat with the sea splashing around my feet in the darkness. I was watching the flashing green light on Stephen’s head edge ever closer to me through the water, and then I heard Eddie’s son (whose name escapes me… sorry!) shout “In you go mate!” and that was it… I jumped in to the darkness… it wasn’t as cold as I’d expected and I soon settled into my rhythm, swimming alongside the boat. When swimming at night time, the boat has a couple of spot lights trained onto the water but I found them quite dazzling so chose to swim towards the front of the boat just outside of the glare. I felt really comfortable in the water, the swim took on a kind of ethereal quality and I zoned out a bit. It was like a kind of sensory deprivation… swimming in the darkness, not being able to see past your hands, with the only sounds being the sound of air being drawn into & expelled from your lungs, and water sloshing around your ears. Occasionally I’d see a jellyfish ‘glowing’ from the light of the boat, but they were never of any concern. They added to the ethereal quality I mentioned before. After what seemed to be a very quick hour, I was out and Alan was back in the water. Wrapped in my dry robe, I disappeared back below deck to dry off and snooze a bit before my next swim.
Swim number two started at 8:23 am for me… prior to that, I’d watched over Suzanne whilst she put in another solid swim. The nausea was still with me, but I’d found an excellent remedy in ginger & lemon tea, sweetened with a bit of CNP carbohydrate powder! It settled my stomach and gave me a bit of an energy boost because at this point I really didn’t feel like eating anything. The sun had been up for a while now, and we could see Dover behind us and France in front of us, as well as the other boats supporting other swimmers. The odd container ship or ferry was visible, reminding us that the English Channel is one of the worlds busiest shipping lanes. By now we were past the ‘zone of separation’ (a mile wide ‘gap’ in the middle of the channel separating the shipping lanes) and were well in to the South or French shipping lane. The current was pulling strongly on the day we swam, and at this point it was pulling us at our fastest. Having subsequently gone over our track and cross referencing the times I swam, it looks like I covered nearly seven kilometers during that second hour! It goes to show how much of an influence the tide and currents exert on the swimmers.
After my second swim, I was able to sit on the deck, take in our environment and just enjoy the moment. The sun was warm, the sea was relatively smooth and everyone was in good spirits! Over the course of our swim, we encountered various different species of wild life… from a large seal (which I missed) to dolphins, jellyfish and even a couple of juvenile sun fish! The latter being something which Eddie had never seen in the Channel before. They are generally found in more tropical waters and can grow to be a couple of tons in weight. These were babies though, more the size of a dustbin lid.
Just before I started my third swim, Eddie had a quiet word with me and suggested that, although it was a big ask, I could potentially be the one to take us on to shore in France! We were about 4k from shore at this point… I can sustain 3.5 kph on a good day, but not knowing whether the tide would hinder or assist me meant I’d just have to give it my best! So, with the adrenaline pumping, knowing we were close, I dove into the water and put my head down. I really gave it some beans for that last hour, I inadvertently drifted away from the boat as I was so hell bent on getting to shore! I nearly made it, but the rules are strict and changeover must occur on the hour. Whilst I was still swimming, Alan had entered the water and was just behind me along with one of the crew members who by this time was in the small rib that they use to take people too & from shore. He pulled up alongside me and told me it was time to let Alan take us home, however as we were so close they allowed me to follow him in which meant I was able to step foot on to the beach near Wissant. It only took a further seven minutes on top of my hour for Alan to reach the shore, meaning we’d completed our relay in fifteen hours and seven minutes. I was beaming when I followed Alan on to the beach, he’d been met by a couple walking their dog, “Bonjour!” I cheerfully called to them, to which the response was “We’re English mate! Just here on holiday… well done though!”. Alan and I grabbed a handful of pebbles each, one for each of the swimmers and a few additional ones for my daughters. Mine were secured under my swim hat, Alan’s were stowed elsewhere (I’ll leave that to your imagination!) and we made our way back to Anastasia in the rib, to join our team mates in celebrating with lukewarm prosecco!
The journey back to Dover took less than three hours, and we reveled in our victory (or dozed!). Once back on terra firma, we dumped our stuff at our hotel, showered and went for a celebratory drink and a meal. That first pint went down a treat! It was lovely to reminisce about our day, and Lucy joined us too so we shared stories of our experiences over the past 48 hours. Her relay team had successfully completed their attempt too. By 9pm, we were all pretty shattered so headed back to our hotel for a well-earned sleep.
Reflecting on our journey, I have to give huge thanks to everyone involved in the event. Especially the team; Bryan, Suzanne, Richard, Stephen, Alan and Lucy… as well as Eddie Spelling and the Anastasia crew. You may have heard his name mentioned in the news recently as Anastasia was the boat who completed the first ever four way crossing with Sarah Thomas! Our thanks to Geoff Cox, our observer who remained cool, calm and collected throughout. And last but by no means least, a huge heartfelt thank you to my lovely wife and daughters who have supported and encouraged me throughout and who continue to support me whilst I’m away for hours on end training in the lake, sea or pool.
Swimming the English Channel as a relay is something I’d heartily recommend to anyone who has any interest in swimming, or wants to push themselves with a new challenge. If you’d like to know about future SwimTayka relays, check out their website https://swimtayka.org/channelrelay/or find the contact details on the site to get in touch with Bryan for a chat.