Random Musings

The last month has seen the temperature rise from 11°C to the heady height of 13°C with my swims climbing from 60 minutes to over 4 hours.. .that’s a lot of time to muse! Here are some of the very random thoughts that I had in recent training sessions…

Star signs and channel swimming: Back in 2004, I analysed the Star Signs of Channel Swimmers to see if there was any relationship between astrological star sign and success…and found a significant difference between star signs that I couldn’t easily explain…

Now that I have a more comprehensive database of birthdays (i.e. for 1464 successful swims), I thought I would dust off the previous analysis. I found that there was still quite a skew with Virgo dominating. However I quickly figured out that this was due to Alison Streeter (Virgo) and Kevin Murphy (Aquarius) with 43 and 34 crossings respectively…with Star Signs being less dominant if their exceptional records were removed from the dataset.

Perhaps more interesting is the relationship between month of birth and channel swimming. Again the phenomenal records of Alison (August) and Kevin (January) distort the picture but with these removed, the pattern is fairly even across the year, with the most popular birth month being June or August. This somewhat contradicts the analysis of global sporting performance against birth month which shows a significant skew towards being born in the first quarter/half of the year (see this BBC article on the Olympics or this summary of the research). One skew might be the desire for those born in the summer to get a channel swim in on their 20/30/40/50th year (see previous blog!)

Just going to prove the old adage of George Canning “I can prove anything with statistics except the truth”

Psychological tricks: On Saturday 25 as I approached 3 hours, I was losing motivation. Just then I looked up and saw my 14 year old daughter, Phoebe, in the water next to me. She had been swimming around waiting for me to come back to feed. “Would it be too far to swim around the harbour with you?” she asked.

I thought this might be a bit much at 13°C on her first swim of the season – so instead we swam out together to the yellow “duck” buoys and back which is about 15 minutes and a nice swim.

She swam strongly but the cold always takes its toll and so I had her focus on strong strokes to warm the muscles. We got safely back to the shore and she headed out for a warm towel and my dry robe…whilst I turned around to head for the “ducks” again for once last circuit.

I had been dreading that last circuit because it takes roughly 45 minutes which always leaves 15 minutes to fritter away…the swim with Phoebe had eaten up that “spare” 15 minutes so I “only” had to circuit the harbour – an enormous psychological help.

The psychology of training is always odd…but “every little helps”! Or as Freda Streeter put it once “Channel swimming is 80% mental; and 20% in your head!”

Phoebe (on the left) post swim!

Countering boredom: In training, the cold is enemy #1 – but boredom comes a very close second. If you are circuiting the harbour for 4, 5, 6 or 10 hours, you get very, very bored of the shore view (the 1950’s Gateway Flats; the Premier Inn; the terrace houses below the White Cliffs) and the harbour view (P&O ferries departing; twin lighthouses on the harbour entrance; rowing or sailing boats outside the swim area).

4 hours is 14,400 strokes and 4,800 breaths…2,400 to the left; 2,400 to the right. Nothing to think about between!

A friend recommended a Swim Walkman to relieve the boredom…I have tried them before but the ear buds never stay in – and once water gets in, you can’t hear anything. And then you can waste time and energy fiddling with the headset. Also if the ear piece presses too hard in the ear canal then it can be very painful. But after last weeks swims, I was willing to try anything! So I bought one…

I downloaded a load of plays from BBC iplayer and dropped them (with a bit of music) to the MP3 player. I tested it in training on Friday night so knew it worked and so Saturday found me heading down the shore with it in place. It worked…for 3.5 hours. Which meant I listened to 5 complete plays and learnt a lot about: the Republican Presidents; Needlework; and psychological torture of a child in an Edwardian divorce. It was a triumph, leaving only 30 minutes to survive on my own (rather than 4 hours!).

Unfortunately on Sunday, I couldn’t get it to stay in place…back to the drawing board…

Surfing or slapping: Yesterday the harbour was a millpond and it was better than swimming in a pool. In a pool, swimmers in other lanes create “chop” and you are constrained into a small corridor up and down a lane. In the harbour with no wind, you can go anywhere (although ideally anticlockwise to prevent head on collisions with other swimmers) and the ripples from your strokes are sent out towards the horizon, never to return.

Today was a different matter. The tide was coming in creating a swell from west to east and the wind got up during the morning cresting the sea into waves. On the way down the harbour (from west to east), this is fine as you body-surf the waves, feeling yourself lifted up into the air then surfing down the wave. The only danger is that each wave can subtly alter your course so you are continually striving to head towards the yellow buoy on the horizon.

As you reach the other end, it is a different matter. The waves have become large and threatening, slamming into the harbour wall and rebounding to create a “washing machine” churn effect. Suddenly the fastest swimmer finds themselves being flung around and making no headway towards the wall, which looks threatening due to the waves crashing into it.

But worse is to come as you touch the wall tentatively and strike for home. Now you are swimming into the waves and each stroke gives you a slap in the face. Much of the time when you breathe one side, instead of air you breathe wave. If they get very large then your only choice is to dolphin dive through them in a disconcerting rhythm. By the time you make the beach, your shoulders are sore from the slapping and your arms heavy from the pounding.

And then you turn and do it all over again!

The “Everest” of swimming: Channel swimming is often referred to as the Everest of cold water swimming. This comparison highlights how phenomenally difficult it was for Captain Matthew Webb to conquer the channel in 1875; comparable to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ascent of Everest in 1953.

However the comparison is flawed on many dimensions…fewer people swim the Channel but Everest is much more dangerous:

  • 1959 people have swum the English Channel; 4833 have climbed to the summit of Everest;
  • 142 people swam the channel last year; 648 summits were done in 2017 (~5x the rate)…here is a picture of 100+ people queueing to ascend to Everest summit this week alone;
  • The record for multiple channel crossings is 43 (Alison Streeter); the record for Everest summits is 21 (Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi);
  • 10 people have died swimming the channel since 1875; 10 people have lost their lives on Everest this month – 288 in total since 1953
  • Average temperature in the channel for a crossing is 17-18°C whilst for Everest summit is -19°C

Success or “deferred success”: Howard James asked me what the success rate of solo swims is…and however hard I searched my files, I couldn’t find the answer!

So I re-did the analysis…the answer is: on average around 66% but varying from 58-71% depending on the season. There are gaps in the data and I will update the chart if more information becomes available.

Here is the data for the CSA and CSPF:

Randomness of weather: After some wonderfully sunny days, the channel reverted to type, adding a random force 8/9 wind to Saturday’s forecast. I wasn’t sure about a 3am start (I have done plenty of those already!) and with the wind forecast (see below), I decided not to swim Saturday. This meant 2 swims missed…and on Sunday, I was not “feeling the love” – I drove all the way to Dover, walked onto the sunny beach packed with channel swimmers, gazed out to the sea…and then turned around and drove home. I was in no mood to spend 7 hours swimming in a circle…although I did manage to get myself to a pool later. The training is now officially “off track”…

Saturday 8th June
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