andy’s english channel swim: august 2007

2007 swim

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France has the most beautiful beach in the world.

Contrary to Channnel swimmers’ lore, the sun does not always shine in France, although I’m sure that it sometimes does. There are not always picnic tables with white linen, champagne & crystal glasses on the beach, although I’m sure there sometimes are, and the women are not always topless, although I’m sure that they occaisionally are.

But they still have the most beautiful beach in the world with the best waves in the world. The beach is just South of Calais, with gentle waves about 18 inches high, two of which washed me onto France late in the afternoon on 5th September 2007.

This years’ swim started with the realisation that I had appproached last years’ attempt with too much power & aggression – something which the Channel more than matched, and saw me off with my tail between my legs. On the basis of "if you can’t beat them then join them" I adopted a more co-operative approach and spent the whole year learning to swim more efficiently. This included attaining a more streamlined body position in the water, generating power from the core & hips rather than the arms & shoulders ("it’s golf not boxing"), extending the drive from each stroke & the glide between strokes. All this resulted in my maintaining swimming speed, but reduced strokes from 20 down to 16 per 25m pool length. Do the arithmetic over 35km & the benefits are enormous – 5 500 strokes less. In addition, my lower back became extremely stiff & painful last year from compensating for swimming in rough water; I believe that this resulted in a significant loss in speed as my arms were recruited for stabilisation rather than propulsion. I therefore spent months sitting on a large plastic "Pezzi" ball in my office to condition my lower back & core area.

Cecilia & I divided the swim into the five Channel zones, namely

  • English coastal zone (9km)
  • Southbound shipping lane (7km)
  • Separation zone (2km)
  • Northbound shipping lane (9km)
  • French coastal zone (6km)

These zones are roughly the same distances as Cape Towns’ best recognised swim, namely the Robben Island – Blouberg swim of 8km. Dividing the swim into these familiar chunks made it seem less intimidating than a single swim of 33.5km as the seagull flies.

Being a morning person, I was glad to get an early start – to Cecilia’s perpetual regret – and swimming in the dark feels just like Brian Buttons’ 05h30 squad sessions. I planned to use the English coastal zone to settle into the swim: to get warmed up & settle into my stroke, to assess the water & wind conditions and their effect on the boats’ diesel exhaust (which caused me to throw up last year), and also for my backup team of Cecilia & Ryanhardt and the boat  crew to settle into my feeding routine. I then planned to push hard in the Southbound shipping lane, to hopefully be in a position to finish the swim in daylight, and then to back off in the longer Northbound shiipping lane, in order to rest up for the final push into the French coastal zone & its’ fierce tidal currents which have scuppered many attempts a stones’ throw from the beach.   

My feeding routine was also planned, but with sufficient alternatives to accommodate almost any whim that should strike my fancy. Essentially it entailed feeding on Cytomax sports drink every 20 minutes (roughly 1km), Cytomax Refuel (containing carbs & protein) hourly, and one of my weaknesses – CocaCola – as a treat & sugar-boost for the last hour. For variation & emergencies we also had hot chocolate, coffeee & tea pre-mixed in thermos flasks and roast chicken & potatoes, and honey sandwiches (thanks Fran, for the improvisation last year!).

Final preparations included writing down a long list of song lyrics, quotes from friends & family, and mantras of my own to be written on the whiteboard. Talking & listening costs too much time (I swim with ear plugs) and communicating via the whiteboard enabled me to read the messages at my leisure while breathing towards the boat. This communication is important because it gave me something to occupy my mind between feeds ("zoning out between meals – sounds a bit like work" per Jody from BloomBerg London). Final communication from Cecilia & Ryanhardt to me was progress reporting. This was Cecilia’s idea of drawing a map of the channel with the 5 zones clearly marked on a pinboard. A series coloured pins were stuck into the board marking my progress, with times into each zone written nearby.


Final communication from the boat!


A Long Day at the Office 

My memory of the actual swim has become a bit of a blur – I hesitate to say a blur of speed – and the mind compensates in curious ways when confronted with extreme & unfamiliar circumstances, so the narrative will degenerate into a telegram-style rambling of memories from here.

The day (night) started with the usual rituals: alarm in the middle of the night, pretend it’s just another training session, shave & shower, swallow another dose of Cytomax Pre-Formance & brush teeth, car was packed last night so the three of us tumble into the Ford Focus with the feeding pole almost breaking the front & back windscreens simultaneously. Turn up the volume of Smashing Pumkins just once more ("C’mon bring the light … I’ve never felt so good & right") to groans from Cecilia, buy 24 hours worth of pre-paid parking at the Dover harbour, cart the 2 boxes down to Seafarer II, meet the crew & complete the paperwork with the CS&PF official observer, discover that the on-board cigarette lighter hasn’t been repaired so no recharge for gps, SportsTrack, phones, cameras etc, ride out to Shakespeare beach, grease up, attach new battery-powered swimmers light, into the black water & swim to the beach to start the swim.


For the first time I felt at ease – I knew this beach like the back of my hand after swimming here every afternoon for two weeks. I landed at the exact point where I turned for the return leg of my usual afternoon swim, waited for the light signal from the boat, and started off into the surreal experience of chasing the phosforescence that lit up with every stroke. Suddenly startled back to reality swimming into my drink bottle with – suprise – a glow stick attached – I hadn’t thought of that! Roll onto my back, three quick squeeze & swallows, drop the bottle & swim on. 10 second pitstop for refueling beats Fernando Alonso.


As it starts getting light (Smashing Pumpkins back again) I decide to swim in clear air upwind of the diesel exhaust rather than in calmer water & in the diesel. After 2 hours & my 2nd feed on Cytomax Recovery I discovered that it wasn’t mixing with the Cytomax sports drink that I was alternating with, "glugging" away with every stroke as I rolled from side to side. I was really stressed about not throwing up as it costs time, electrolytes & body heat, so I decided to swim with a flat torso i.e. exactly the opposite of the last 12 months’ technique improvements – but it settled my stomache! (Note to aspirant Channel swimmers: just trying & training with your intended feeds is not enough. You need to train with them in the same conditions & sequence etc as your event).

For the rest, the swim was boring i.e. perfect. Everything went like clockwork – all feeds on time (except one due to conspiracy by the crew!), I was fed what I wanted on que, didn’t get sick or injured, all communication from the boat was prompt, clear & accurate, and the swim went according to plan. We got to the 1st shipping lane surprisingly early (3h20), with an overcast grey sky that delayed the dawn. After a treat of a slightly longer feed and cheered by the sight of the 1st ships, upped the tempo for the 1st shipping lane and hit the halfway bouy at the top of the separation zone after 5h30 – a good time for me – and my 1st view of the French coast gave me a big emotional lift.


1. Half-way bouy. 2. Ryanhardt finds his sea-legs & 3. outlasts the official observer (see background of 3rd pic) 

The only downside was that the water was really sloppy – all haystacks & static – not the result of strong wind, but more likely the legacy of wind changing direction, strong tides & wakes from large cargo vessels & fast ferries. The other legacy of the shipping traffic is the colder water in the shipping lanes, where the large vessels’ propellors churn up the deeper, colder water.

Unfortunately, in the 2nd shipping lane the water became even more choppy. I had hoped to take this stretch a little easier, but Cecilia kept on chasing me on at every feed break, saying from soon after halfway that we would get to Calais in slack tide. That was miles off my radarscreen, as I thought our target was Cap Griz Nes about 20 km to the South. Still it didn’t penetrate my consciousness – I was counting strokes, breaking my sessions into 300m freestyle (100 breaths, breathing every 3rd stroke), 3 strokes breaststroke to stretch out my neck & shoulders ("I like it when he swims like a seal" was 2IC Jim’s comment). Three of those sets took me to the next feed break & my next round of being chased up. What I did not know was that we were right on target to land at Calais in the slack tide, but losing any time meant that the push North by the flood tide would take us beyond Calais, where the coastline falls away rapidly, making for a much longer swim. So my rest phase turned into a 4h30 long slog through very unsettled water that just never let me settle into my stroke all day long. As I tired my legs started dragging & I was forced to kick to get my hips & legs back up. 


However, seeing ships travelling North behind me felt great & I just plugged away at each 300m block counting strokes & focusing on technique & swimming as efficiently as possible. This took all my concentration by now, as my recovery stroke was no longer as high as it had been, and whenever I stopped concentrating I would start shovelling my left arm forward instead of lifting it. The final marker was our entry into the French coastal zone. All Shipping was now behind us, and I had roughly 7km to go – a Robben Island – Blouberg swim.


Approaching France

Then all of a sudden, I knew with absolute certainty that I was in.

In retrospect, it was probably about the same distance from shore that I abandoned my swim in the darkness last year. The mind is an amazing thing – I suddenly felt good in the water – I was floating higher & stroking more powerfully – absolutely bulletproof (the log shows I was swimming about half-speed). I didn’t care where I landed – in spite of Cecilia’s relentless urging me on to get in before the tide turned north, I could see miles of sandy beaches ahead of me and they could have scraped me off the hovercraft landing strip in Calais for all I cared. Then I snapped: Cecilia had just chased me up once too often, and what was the point because I was in anyway – the contract was signed and it just needed witnesses to initial – could she not just back off & be nice at last? "Don’t shout at me!" I roared between strokes. In slow motion, as the words were leaving my mouth, I realised that she was excitedly shouting to me "One mile to go." Where is Microsoft Outloook’s recall function when you need it most. I just put my head down & swam, breathing away from the boat.

1 Following the dinghy to the beach. 2 Chatting to the locals on the beach.

The rest of the swim completed on autopilot: watching the dingy being launched from Seafarer II, chosing a spot to land, realising that I wouldn’t make that spot & recalibrating further north but not realising that the tide had turned & that I had only just beaten it; seeing Seafarer II turning away from the beach as the water shallowed; wishing that all my friends & family could swim into the beach & share this with me – my Cape Dolphins training partners, the regular Sunday morning Camps Bay gang and also the menaces from Kevin Fialkov’s evening squad who I could never keep up with; feeling like a boy again at my home town of Port Shepstone where the beach sand is the same colour, and where I would swim for 6 hours a day in the summer on school holidays. Most of all I wished that my wife Cecilia, who had crossed the Channel twice on my escort boat but was prevented by immigration regulations from swimming in, my mum, who narrowly missed selection for the 1952 Olympics, and my sister who has supported all my sports, could have swum in with me.


1 & 2 Returning to the boat. 3 Cecilia drying me off. 4 Feels good when you finish! 

1 & 2 Varne Ridge’s Wall of Successful swimmers. 3 Welcome home to Varne Ridge after the swim.