“A mere ditch that shall be crossed…”

A little over a month ago, I swam the English Channel, walking down Shakespeare Beach at 6:37am on Tuesday morning after the Bank Holiday; and then 16 hours 10 minutes later crawling up a rocky beach at Tardinghen, east of Cap Gris Nez.

This was my 4th solo crossing of the English Channel and 3rd attempt to swim there and back…

During my swim, I thought about many things…one of the weirder ones was the similarities between Brexit and Channel Swimming! So at the risk of over-stretching a metaphor, here are 5 insights from channel swimming… I will leave you to draw any parallels with Brexit!

1. Your perspective on the gap between the UK and France depends on where you are standing: Of the 2068 people who have swum the channel since 1875, 758 have been from the UK but only 32 have been from France (i.e. ~24x as many UK nationals).

The French love channel swimmers: for instance, when I first landed on a French beach on a sunny evening in 2004, I was greeted like a hero by French promenaders who asked for photographs with me. When swimmers land at Cap Gris Nez, the restaurant there will serve them a glass of champagne. And this year, so so many swimmers have been greeted with true Gallic hospitality by Frédérique and Steve (himself a channel swimmer twice over)!

And yet few French citizens chose to swim La Manche? Perhaps it is the national psyche of an “island” nation to want to cross to the “mainland”…or perhaps it is Napoleon’s view that it is a “mere ditch that shall be crossed”?

2. Achieving your aim requires careful planning but the journey is rarely smooth: It takes the minimum of a year to train to swim the channel. You train in pools all winter and then, from May, in Dover harbour every weekend. You need a support crew willing to give up 48 hours at short notice to accompany you to France. You need to prepare thoroughly, completing detailed check lists.

Detailed checklists ensure swimmers arrive at Shakespeare Beach
with essentials like a swimming costume and goggles!

And then you wait for the right moment, watching the wind forecasts and frequently the big day gets delayed…I eventually swam 2 weeks after my original “tide window”!

To swim the channel, the wind needs to be as small as possible (i.e. the graph should have no colour in it). My “window” when I had booked to swim is the yellow box. Watch the forecast change from bad to very bad…and the window disappear.

3. Whatever is thrown at you, stay calm and carry on: In 2014, I attempted the 2-way (“there and back”) for the first time. Instead of the wind coming down, it blew force 4-5 all day – great for sailing but horrible for swimming. It took me 17 hours 35 minutes, 3.5 hours longer than 2004 -and I didn’t turn for the return journey.

In 2017, a large Spring tide took me on a tour of the channel and it took me 16 hours 40 minutes – and I didn’t turn again!

This year, I sprinted across and was looking at my fastest ever swim at 12-13 hours, enabling me to turn for the 2nd leg. Then a surprise Neap tide picked up all the boats and whisked them up the channel past Cap Gris Nez, adding 3-4 hours to my swim. And my shoulders blew out at 14 hours…

What do you do when faced with inflamed shoulders and 2-3 hours more swimming in the pitch dark to reach France? Stay calm and carry on…to the next feed; and then the next; and then the next. Eventually you will walk on a French beach!

A 1940s message slightly adapted for the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation!

4. It is a team sport: Although only one person is actually swimming in the water, they would not have got there without a huge amount of support. Family support – in my case Sarah and my 4 children – enables me to train most evenings and all weekend (up to 10 hours each day in the sea). My trainer – Emma France – ensures I am fit and provides motivation when it all gets too much. My office – Sarah, Natalia and Maria – rearrange my diary repeatedly to reflect the vagaries of the wind. The Pilot and his crew – Neil & Toby – navigate me through the busiest shipping lanes in the world, guessing the tides to try to reach Cap Gris Nez. The support crew – Annette, Lorna, Liz and Matt – check on me from the boat and feed me every hour for as long as it takes. I claim the credit; but the team did most of the work!

5. Nothing great is easy: These words are engraved on Captain Matthew Webb’s memorial. In August 1875 (at his second attempt) he did something that everyone thought was impossible: he swam from England to France in 21 hours 45 minutes. And through that act, he changed the views of a nation about swimming.

My 4th and final English Channel swim!


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